Honoring those who served

After all that time, suddenly, it was silent.

After war had raged for more than four years, on the battlefields of Europe the quiet must have been eerie.

There at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the survivors must have breathed a sigh of relief.

It was over.

11.11.1918The War to End All Wars, it was called.1

And it wasn’t, of course, not at all.

Still, the toll of its carnage was staggering: more than nine million dead, more than 21 million wounded.2 So many lost that people hoped it would be the last.

So many gone that it gave rise to what today, here in the United States, is called Veterans Day.

First proclaimed in November 1919 by President Wilson,3 Armistice Day became a national holiday by statute in 1938.4 In 1954, the name of the holiday was claimed to Veterans Day.5

It joined the list of three-day-weekend holidays in 19686 but was returned to its original date of November 11th by statute passed in 1975, effective in 1978.7

And so, today, November 11th — Veterans Day — we pause to thank every man and woman who has ever served this nation, wearing the uniform of its military services. So many of them from my own family.8

Among them, my brothers and sister:

Evan H. Geissler, U.S. Air Force
Diana M. Geissler McKenzie, U.S. Air Force
Frederick M. Geissler, U.S. Army
Warren H. Geissler, U.S. Air Force
William K. Geissler, U.S. Marine Corps

Among my mother’s generation:

Billy R. Cottrell, U.S. Navy
Monte B. Cottrell, U.S. Navy
David F. Cottrell, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army
Jerry L. Cottrell, U.S. Air Force
Michael V. Cottrell, U.S. Air Force
Philip Cottrell, U.S. Marine Corps, 1920-1943

Among what we call the outlaws:

J.C. Barrett, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
Miller (Ray) Childress, U.S. Navy
John C. Epps, U.S. Army
Thomas T. Williams, Jr., U.S. Air Force (Reserve)

And those who went before:

Clay R. Cottrell, U.S. Army, World War I
Jesse Fore, fifer, Captain Michael Gaffney’s Company, South Carolina Militia, War of 1812
Elijah Gentry, Private, 1st Regiment, Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, War of 1812
Elijah Gentry Sr., Sergeant, South Carolina Militia, Revolutionary War, and Private, 1st Regiment, Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, War of 1812
David Baker, Corporal, 3d Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, Revolutionary War
William Noel Battles, Private, 10th Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, Revolutionary War
John Pettypool, 1771, Militia, Granville County, NC
William Pettypool, 1701-02, Militia, Charles City County (Va.) Dragoons
Nicholas Gentry, cir 1680, Militia, Mattapony (Va.) Garrison


Image: Chicago Tribune, 11 November 1918, p.1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 10 Nov 2014).

  1. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “The war to end war,” rev. 18 Aug 2014.
  2. World War I,” History.com (http://www.history.com : accessed 10 Nov 2014).
  3. Armistice Day,” WWPL Blog, posted 11 Nov 2011, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum (http://wwplblog.wordpress.com : accessed 10 Nov 2014).
  4. “AN ACT Making the 11th day of November in each year a legal holiday,” 52 Stat. 351 (13 May 1938).
  5. “An Act To honor veterans on the 11th day of November of each year, a day dedicated to
    world peace,” 68 Stat. 168 (1 Jun 1954).
  6. “An Act To provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and for other purposes,” 82 Stat. 250 ( 27 Jun 1968).
  7. “An Act To redesignate November 11 of each year as Veterans Day and to make such day a legal public holiday,” 89 Stat. 479 (18 Sep 1975).
  8. The list would be longer if I included those who wore a particular shade of grey… and, with apologies, I don’t have room in one blog post to even begin to list the cousins, nieces and nephews!
Posted in General, Statutes | 2 Comments

At the Library of Virginia

There is so much that The Legal Genealogist could say about this wonderful weekend in Virginia.

I could start with a great big “Thank You!” to the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia (GRIVA) for serving as my hosts for this past Saturday’s fall seminar.

I could thank everyone who came out — and especially the many students of Clover Hill High School in Midlothian — to hear about genealogy and the law.

I could say how much I appreciated the questions and the comments folks had during and after my talks.

I could say how much fun it was to be where so many of my ancestors lived.

I could add how delightful it was to spend yesterday at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond with my cousin and fellow genealogist Paula taking pictures of so many interesting tombstones, and paying our respects to our aunt and uncle who are buried there.

Or I could go back to hunting for ancestors here at the Library of Virginia.

And you know what’s going to win out, right?

You betcha.

I just found my third great grandfather in the tax records of Grayson County and I need to find out how long he stayed there before he and a whole bunch of others headed off for Alabama.


Personal property tax records fill in the gaps between the census records. If an ancestor, like mine, is in North Carolina in 1830 and in Virginia in 1840, it’s the tax records that can tell you when he moved. And where he moved. And who his new neighbors were.

And because the tax was on personal property, and on people (poll taxes or tithes), and not solely on land, it lets me track families who weren’t wealthy enough to own land, who may have been tenant farmers.

These records, like so many others, are not online, not the kind of thing you can find while sitting in your jammies and bunny slippers at 3 a.m.

So check back with me in, oh, eight or 10 hours… after the Library of Virginia closes for the day…

I’m hot on the trail…

Posted in Methodology, My family, Resources | 4 Comments

Y me???

With a second great grandfather like George Washington Cottrell, DNA testing was an obvious choice for The Legal Genealogist.

George — my favorite ancestor — is my rogue. My rascal. My family scoundrel.1

3d render of dna structure, abstract  backgroundAnd he’s undoubtedly my nemesis. He said in a Mexican War pension application that he was born in Madison County, Kentucky, in 1821.2 But there are really good records for that time period in Madison County — deeds, wills, tax records — and George’s family (if it was there at all) didn’t even leave footprints in Madison County.

And once I saw his criminal record history — starting with an indictment for bigamy3 and ending with an indictment for murder4 — one thing that occurred to me is that his name — my family name — might have been something he thought to change.

Nope. The one crime George didn’t commit was the genealogical crime of changing his name. My family member with the Cottrell surname who directly descends from George shares the same YDNA with tons of other Cottrell-surnamed men. YDNA, remember, is the type of DNA that is passed from father to son to son with few changes over the generations.5

And while we have that annoying break in our paper trail, some of the other Cottrell-surnamed men have excellent paper trails back to one Richard Cottrell who died in Virginia in 1715.6 And given those paper trails, the most recent common ancestor for many of these men is this earliest Richard or one of his sons, Richard or Thomas.

In other words, very early 18th century.


So why am I annoyed with my Cottrells today?

Because of another set of YDNA results that just came in.

A perfect 67-for-67 match with my Cottrell and several other Cottrell-surnamed men.

Except he’s not a Cottrell. Well, not by surname, at any rate.

And he’s a close autosomal cousin in an entirely different line. My grandmother’s Battles line, instead of my grandfather’s Cottrell line.

This other line begins its paper trail with a Revolutionary War soldier who went by the name William Battles or Noel Battles or William Noel Battles or Noel Battlesby or… He was born most likely in Albemarle County, Virginia, around 1757.7

He named a son Archibald in his will and one of Archibald’s descendants with a perfect paper trail down to today has YDNA tested and is a 36-for-37 match with another Battles man who descends from an ancestor of mine on my grandmother’s side.

And they both — both of these Battles men, whose most recent common ancestor to each other is William Noel Battles, born in 1757, and whose families split up and went to different parts of the country by the mid-1800s — match the Cottrells.

All of the Cottrells.

Including the folks with the perfect paper trail back to the early 18th century.

Now there’s no break in the overall Cottrell paper trail starting with Richard (looking, of course, at the other Cottrell men’s records). There’s no data on William Noel Battles before his own birth, but a lot of speculation that he was illegitimate and possibly of mixed blood — part Indian, perhaps, part mulatto more likely.

In other words, we likely have a Cottrell man fathering an illegitimate Battles child somewhere between 1735 (if William Noel’s father) and 1757 (if William Noel himself).

And their descendants — my grandmother (from the Battles side) and my grandfather (from the Cottrell side) meeting and marrying in the early 20th century.

Could my ancestry get any more complicated?


  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Darn it all, George!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2012, and “Oh George… you stinker!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 9 Jun 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 8 Nov 2014).
  2. Survivor’s Brief, 17 February 1890, pension application no. 7890 (Rejected), for service of George W. Cotrell of Texas; Mexican War Pension Files; Records of the Bureau of Pensions and its Predecessors 1805-1935; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  3. Colorado County, Texas, Criminal Court Minutes Book A&B, p. 217, Republic of Texas v. G.W. Cottrell, Criminal Cause File No. 251 (1843); District Court, Columbus.
  4. Wharton County, Texas, District Court Minute Book A: 9, State of Texas v. G.W. Cottrell, Criminal Cause No. 9 (13 October 1848); FHL microfilm 1012537.
  5. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 5 Mar 2014.
  6. See generally Richard J. Cottrell, “Richard and Mary (Anderson) Cottrell of New Kent Co., VA” (http://www.richardcottrell.org/ : accessed 8 Nov 2014).
  7. Noel Battles, no. S.12960 (Pvt., Capt. Shelton’s Company, 10th Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 (http://www.Fold3.com : accessed 22 Mar 2014).
Posted in DNA | 11 Comments

Research for another day

There is, I suspect, in every family, that one thing you just don’t want to research.

The one family story where, in reality, you just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

And so it is in my family, as well.

And it will, I am certain, influence my choices of where to spend my research time over the next few days in Virginia.

BillyR.age10Today, you see, would have been my Uncle Billy’s 95th birthday.

And there is one thing in his life history where, well, I just really don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Billy Rex Cottrell was the second-born child and first-born son of my grandparents, Clay Rex and Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, born 8 November 1919 in Hollister, Tillman County, Oklahoma.1

Their first child, my aunt Ruth, was a tiny slip of a girl — tiny when she was born in August 19172 and tiny still when she passed from this life at the end of February 1918.3

Billy, by contrast, was one big loud boy, nine pounds or more at birth,4 who quickly became the ringleader of an ever-growing tribe of younger siblings: he wasn’t yet two when he became a big brother for the first time5 and he was pushing 23 when the last of his siblings was born.6

Because of his career in the United States Navy, so much of my uncle’s life is an open book. We know that he joined the United States Navy in April 1940 and was in the first ever class of aviation radiomen. His first assignment was with the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser stationed at Pearl Harbor.7

From the Chicago he went on to serve on the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet in Divebombing Squadron 8. His plane went down in the Battle of Midway;8 he and the pilot were rescued then after hours in what he forever after described as an “itty bitty rubber raft” — and enough sun exposure that he suffered for years from skin cancer.

During the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, the pilot Billy flew with was sick and couldn’t fly, so he was on board when the ship came under Japanese attack. He and others not flying took .30-caliber guns from aircraft that could not fly, mounted them on the rails of the ship and did their best to defend the Hornet from attacking aircraft. The efforts were in vain; all hands abandoned ship on the afternoon of 26 October 1942 and the Hornet went down in the early morning hours of 27 October.

Bill survived that sinking as well, and went on to a long and distinguished career in the Navy before retiring in 1970 with the rank of Chief Warrent Office (CWO-4).

All in all, his obituary reported,

He served his country in the United States Navy from before World War II through the Cold War. A veteran of the battle of Midway, the Solomon Islands campaign, the battle of Santa Cruz, and the blockade of Cuba, he served aboard numerous vessels, including the USS Chicago, USS Hornet, USS Coral Sea, USS Midway, and the USS Forrestal, and flew as crewman in several types of aircraft, including the SBC-4, SBD-3, and P2V. During the battle of Midway, he served as an Aviation Radioman in Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) aboard the USS Hornet (where his plane was forced to ditch in the ocean). In his 30-year career with the Navy, he also served with Patrol Squadron 18, Patrol Squadron 26, Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron 3, and at Naval Air Stations throughout the world. During the course of his service, he was awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal (5 awards), the American Defense Medal (with 1 star), American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 3 stars), the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.9

See what I mean?

An open book.

Except for one minor little matter.

The minor little matter of just how he managed to acquire the Farm.

I have to capitalize that word because of all those 110 Virginia acres came to mean to my family. In 1949 or 1950, Texas-born-and-bred Bill Cottrell became the owner of a farm in Fluvanna County, Virginia, and promptly installed his parents and youngest siblings on it — as caretakers, he said, but the reality was that he was taking care of them.

The Depression had been painfully hard for my grandparents, and the war years not much better. Work was hard to come by and work that would support all those kids even harder. So the Farm was a refuge, a place where the rent would never be due, where with effort and care there would always be enough to eat.

A place where magic began with a bonfire out under the trees. Where my aunts and uncles played guitars and fiddles and sang. Where all the stories were told. Where the family came together not just in the few years after Bill came to own the Farm but for all of his very long lifetime as generations of the family came to know it and know each other there.

A place with its own place in our family lore.

Because, the story goes, Billy won it in a poker game.

Although part of the family story is that he fell in love with Virginia and that it was love at first sight when he walked the hills and meadows of that land, it’s beyond question that it was as far from his experience as it was possible to be.

He was, after all, a career Navy man, a Texan stuck in an east coast assignment. He’d never owned land before. The farm house was old and drafty. The place didn’t even have electricity — he got a bunch of his Navy buddies to help him wire the entire place one weekend by supplying the beer. It lacked running water (think wells and outhouses) and central heat (think pot-bellied stoves).

What in the world was he thinking?

Unless… unless… unless it’s really true that he won it in a poker game. In which case, hey, who cares what he was thinking? You don’t argue with fate when a place like that lands in your lap. You just smile and think… well… it was all in the cards.

Now I know beyond any doubt, as a good genealogist, that there is a deed out there somewhere saying how the land came into Billy’s hands. It will recite the former owner, the consideration paid, and list Billy as the new owner.

Somewhere in an archive or the county courthouse (and likely both) is some evidence that might prove or disprove the whole won-in-a-poker-game story.

But you know what?

I think I’ll spend my research time looking at, oh, folks from the 18th or 19th century instead of a land transaction in the 20th century.

Because, in reality, I just don’t want to know what the truth really is.

Just for a little longer, I’m sticking with the poker game story.

Happy birthday, Uncle Bill.

Miss you.


  1. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” Tributes.com (http://www.tributes.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  2. Interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by JG Russell. Opal Cottrell was the grandmother of Bobette Richardson and JG Russell.
  3. Ibid. See also receipt, Baby Cottrell Funeral, 22 February 1918, Dutton Funeral Home, Iowa Park, Texas; digital copy in possession of author.
  4. Ibid., interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
  5. My aunt Cladyne was born 30 July 1921. Email, 5 Sep 2002, Cladyne Barrett to JG Russell.
  6. My youngest aunt was born 21 September 1942.
  7. Muster Roll of the Crew, USS Chicago Aviation Unit (VCS-4), 31 Dec 1940; Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013), citing U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949, Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  8. See Jason Kelly, “Battle of Midway: Navy Aviator Remembers Midway,” Navy Live, posted 5 Jun 2013 (http://navylive.dodlive.mil : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
  9. Obituary, “Billy Rex Cottrell,” Tributes.com (http://www.tributes.com : accessed 8 Nov 2013).
Posted in My family | 8 Comments

In the pages of the lawbooks

Every so often, The Legal Genealogist comes across someone who looks at the sheer volume of statutory law that may have some genealogical value and is aghast.

Names“There can’t really,” the person may whimper, “be anything in there of any possible use to me.”


Yeah, there really is.

Or at least there might be.

And oh… you don’t want to miss it if there is.

Just as a test, I opened up volume 10 of Hening’s Virginia Statutes at Large.1 Virginia, of course, because I’m speaking there this Saturday — tomorrow! November 8th! — at the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia Fall Conference at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian.2

I just wanted to see who was included, specifically by name, starting at some random point in the book. I began at page 192, which happened to fall in the laws of October 1779, and read forward only 27 pages to the end of the October term of the legislature.

And here’s what I found:

John Alexander and his infant son were mentioned as having the rights to certain lots of land, and the town of Alexandria was allowed to annex the lots.3

John Anderson and Mead Anderson were given the rights to work a lead mine in unappropriated land without paying tax on the estimated value of the lead.4

William Campbell and Walter Crockett were singled out by name as having been involved in defeating a conspiracy in Washington County and given a legal pass — an indemnification and exoneration — for whatever they did in putting down the conspiracy.5

• An act for establishing several new ferries included one from the land of Edward West in Stafford County to Simon Miller in Culpeper and one from the land of Gavin Lawson of Stafford to Fielding Lewis in Spotsylvania. Also referenced were Richard Gallaway, James Bowie the younger, Francis Conway, Abraham Shepherd of Berkeley County, and Thomas Swearingen of Maryland.6

• An act for the relief of Christopher Godwin, explaining that Godwin had leased land in Nansemond County to a Loyalist, John Hamilton, and because of the lease might lose money because of Hamilton’s forfeiture of his rights to the patriot government. The title to the land was re-vested in Godwin.7

• Landowners in Caroline and King and Queen Counties were identified by name in drawing the line between the existing Parish of Drysdale and a new Parish of Saint Asaph. They included John Page, Christopher Smith, Anthony Seale, Frederick Phillips, Edmund Pendleton the elder, and Edmund Jones. And the commissioners of the glebe of the new parish were Pendleton, William Lyne, Anthony Thornton, junior, Thomas Coleman, Mungo Roy and James Upshaw.8

• An act for the manumission of certain Slaves confirmed the freedom of John Hope also known as Barber Caesar, slave of Susanna Riddle of York; William Beck, slave of Thomas Walker the younger of Albemarle, and Pegg, slave of Lewis Dunn of Sussex.9

That’s what’s waiting in the statutes.

In fewer than 30 pages of one statute book.


  1. William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, vol. 10 (Richmond : 1822).
  2. Walk-ins welcome. Just sayin’ …
  3. Hening, The Statutes at Large, 10: 192-193.
  4. Ibid., 10: 193-194.
  5. Ibid., 10: 195.
  6. Ibid., 10: 196-197.
  7. Ibid., 10: 207.
  8. Ibid., 10: 209-210.
  9. Ibid., 10: 211.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 4 Comments

Researching Virginia’s early laws

So The Legal Genealogist is off again this weekend (can you tell it’s conference season?) and this time to a state through which just about all of my mother’s ancestors passed at one point or another — Virginia.

I’ll be speaking Saturday, November 8, at the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia Fall Conference at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, and hope to see you there. (Walk-ins are welcome!)

And in honor of those ancestors and this weekend’s celebration of Virginia research, here’s a little tip on researching early Virginia records: thanks to a man named William Waller Hening, it’s really easy to find out what those records mean by looking at the laws of the Old Dominion that impacted them.

12HeningHening was born around 1750 and died 31 March 1828.1 He was admitted to practice law in Virginia in 1789, became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1804, and served in public office until his death in 1828.2

And his most enduring legal legacy was a monumental 13-volume work containing the laws enacted by Virginia’s legislative bodies (the House of Burgesses and the General Assembly) between 1619 and 1792.

These 13 volumes are cited collectively as William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, 13 vols. (Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, 1809-1823). For short, they’re referred to as Hening’s Statutes at Large. They were published by acts of the Virginia General Assembly dated 5 February 1808, 10 March 1819 and 24 January 1823 3 and have been referred to by a former Virginia State Archivist as “a signal contribution to southern scholarship” and “a work known to all historians.”4

Just about anything you may ever need to know about the colonial and early Commonwealth laws of Virginia, you can find in Hening’s Statutes at Large. Need to know when the town of Stevenburg was founded in Culpeper County? It’s in Volume 11, Laws of 1782.5 Want to see how the militia was organized in 1777? No problem. Volume 9, Laws of 1777.6 Trying to figure out when Randolph County was formed? Volume 12, Laws of 1786.7

Now, the volumes of the original Hening’s Statutes at Large are available online in digital image format. Through Google Books, you can find:

     • Vol. 1 (1619 – 1660)
     • Vol. 2 (1660 – 1682)
     • Vol. 3 (1684 – 1710)
     • Vol. 4 (1711 – 1736)
     • Vol. 5 (1738 – 1748)
     • Vol. 6 (1748 – 1755)
     • Vol. 7 (1756 – 1763)
     • Vol. 8 (1764 – 1773)
     • Vol. 9 (1775 – 1778)
     • Vol. 10 (1779 – 1781)
     • Vol. 11 (1782 – 1784)
     • Vol. 12 (1785 – 1788)
     • Vol. 13 (1789 – 1792)

You can also find the entire set of 13 volumes digitized online at Hathitrust (“a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world”), from the University of Michigan Library here, and from the Harvard University Library here.

And a search for “Hening Statutes” at the Internet Archive will turn up these digital images as well.

A reprint series is available in most major libraries: William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, 13 vols., reprint (Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 1969).

And there’s one more source for these early laws: a transcription of Hening’s statutes keyed in by Freddie L. Spradlin, Virginia state coordinator for the USGenWeb Project. This database, titled Hening’s Statutes at Large, is fully-word-searchable, though the results pages can be a bit hard to navigate.

So no excuses now… since we need to understand the laws when and where the record was created, those of us with Virginia ancestors need to get cracking…


  1. G. Brown Goode, Virginia Cousins: A Study of the Ancestry and Posterity of John Goode of Whitby, a Virginia Colonist of the Seventeenth Century, with Notes Upon Related Families, a Key to Southern Genealogy and a History of the English Surname Gode, Goad, Goode Or Good from 1148 to 1887 (Richmond : J. W. Randolph & English, 1887), 225; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 11 Apr 2012).
  2. William J. Van Schreeven, “William Waller Hening,” 22 William & Mary Quarterly 2d (April 1942) 161-164.
  3. William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, preface to the Second Edition, vol. I (New York : 1823), xxiii-xxiv.
  4. Van Schreeven, “William Waller Hening,” 161.
  5. Laws of 1782, chap. XIX, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 11: 36-38.
  6. Laws of 1777, chap. VII, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 9: 291-297.
  7. Laws of 1786, chap. CI, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 12: 394-395.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 6 Comments

Say, would you mind…?

(Note: This issue came up again in the discussions after yesterday’s blog post on taking the work of others without crediting them. It’s another side to the ethical issues we deal with, and this post from last year is repeated as The Legal Genealogist‘s take on it.)

You see it all the time, out here on the internet.

It seems perfectly innocent.

It’s just a request for help, and helping is something we do here in the genealogical community.

theftIt goes like this:

I don’t subscribe to Big-Pay-Website but I understand that Important Document For My Family is available there. Would someone who is a Big-Pay-Website subscriber please get me a copy of Important Document? I’d sure appreciate it.

There’s only one honest and ethical answer that can be given to that question:


The simple fact is, it’s wrong.

Just plain wrong.

For the person asking for that Important Document, it’s freeloading.

It’s like asking your neighbor who has high speed cable internet service if you can run your wire to his modem so you can use his service. Or if he’d mind sharing the password to his router so you can use his wireless system.

Pure and simple, it’s taking something without paying for it.

And for the person who subscribes to Big-Pay-Website, it’s no different from taking a pencil from your employer’s stockroom for your friend to use — when you’d never dream of taking a pencil from your employer for yourself.

The fact is, it costs money to provide easy online access to a wide variety of documents. Somebody has to pay for acquiring the documents, scanning them, digitizing them, making the equipment and software available to serve them up online.

Big-Pay-Website can only pay for those things if people pay it — fairly and squarely — for the information it provides. To stay in business, it sets terms and conditions for our use of the website.

And that’s what those of us who are subscribers agree to when we sign up. We may not like the terms and conditions; we may whine and moan about the costs.

But that’s the deal, and we’ve agreed to it. Big-Pay-Website is keeping its end of the bargain by making the documents available. We need to keep our end by using the access under the limits set in the terms and conditions.

And those terms often say we can only use Big-Pay-Website for our own research. Sometimes that includes research we’re hired to do for others, but particularly with some of the online newspaper sites, it’s our own personal research only.

Reader Jerry Kocis ran across a variation on this recently in a genealogy group on Yahoo.com. The message there focused on a newspaper article about the death of a member of the inquirer’s family in a train accident in 1890, and the newspaper website at issue has terms that limit its use to our own personal research only.

Jerry posted it on Google+ as an ethics question:

Is it right (ethical) to avoid paying for a subscription to a site’s content by asking for a subscriber to locate the content for you?

Just asking the question gives the answer. No. It’s not right.

Now there is a difference between verifying that the document exists and actually getting a copy of the document. Knowing for sure that the newspaper is available on a particular pay website and that the article is in the paper may be the incentive that pushes me over into subscribing to the site to get that article.

But if I ask you to use your subscription to get me a copy of the article itself?

You know what to tell me. You know I really do have other options. You know I can write to the newspaper. I can go to a library that has the newspaper on microfilm. I can hire someone in that area to track down a physical copy. I can do all the things we as genealogists used to do before there were Big-Pay-Websites, before there was an internet.

So if I ask, just say no, okay? It’s wrong.

Posted in General | 33 Comments

It’s theft

Yet another case of genealogical theft is being reported in our community.

Stop thief road signThis time, it’s the website GenealogyInTime Magazine reporting that some of its authored, copyrighted content is being reproduced, almost word for word, in the newsletter of another website.

In its post, “Let’s Talk About Plagiarism,” GenealogyInTime showed screenshots of a newsletter sent out by email from a different website, and invited readers to compare the contents of the newsletter to earlier articles on its website:

• For the first one, “We encourage readers to click on our link and compare the introductory text between the two articles. They are essentially the same.”1

For the second one, “it is the same article as one we just published on our website. This article was copied in the email newsletter just two days after we published the original article on our website. We would show more of the copied article but we couldn’t get all of it in one screen shot.”2

The Legal Genealogist has nothing to add to this invitation by GenealogyInTime: read the post and decide for yourself.

What I do want to note is simply this:

Taking someone else’s work and using it ourselves — even if it’s not for commercial gain — isn’t sharing.

It’s theft.

Oh we can wrap it up in fancy words like “plagiarism”: “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”3 And it is surely that when we make no effort to credit the person who did all the research and all the hard work. Anybody who’s suffering from even a momentary confusion as to just what plagiarism is can get a great education by reading Elizabeth Shown Mills’ “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing.”4

We could go even further and call it copyright infringement: “The unauthorized use of a work that violates the owners’ copyrights (their rights to exclusive use of the work).”5 And it is surely that as well. Even though it isn’t necessary, under U.S. law or Canadian law (GenealogyInTime is a Canadian website), GenealogyInTime has a copyright notice on every one of its pages, to put every reader on notice that the content is copyrighted.

And if the law alone wasn’t enough, the website explains itself clearly in its terms of use. Those terms are straightforward. There’s no room for others to say they didn’t understand the limits:

All of our content is 100% original. Do not copy, reproduce, translate or upload any content from our website or Newsletter to a blog or another website without our explicit written approval. If you like something on our website, simply talk about it and provide a link to our website.6

But using fancy terms obscures what’s really going on so very often in our community.

What we’re seeing, all too often, is theft. Somebody stealing somebody else’s work: somebody else’s words, somebody else’s photographs.

And it’s wrong.

It violates every ethics code our community has:

• The National Genealogical Society’s Standards For Sharing Information With Others notes that “responsible family historians consistently— identify the sources for all ideas, information and data from others, and the form in which they were received, recognizing that the unattributed use of another’s intellectual work is plagiarism.”7

• The ethics statement of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies provides that “If data presented relies on work already previously undertaken, the credit for such work should be given to the originator…”8

• The code of ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists requires Boartd-certified genealogists to pledge that: “I will not represent as my own the work of another. … In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.”9

• The code of ethics of the Association of Professional Genealogists requires members to promise to “fully and accurately cite references; and … (g)ive proper credit to those who supply information and provide assistance.”10

All of us, as responsible genealogists, individually and as a group, can act to keep on the straight and narrow path here.

First and foremost, in our own work, we need to cite our sources even in our own private research notes or genealogy database entries. That will keep us from even inadvertantly passing off someone else’s work as our own. Someone else’s work should never be incorporated into our own without credit being given.

Secondly, when we want to use that work for publication — and that includes even sharing it with our families and friends, we will often need to ask permission since in many cases our use goes beyond what the law allows as fair use.

And thirdly, we need to stop looking the other way. It’s time for our community as a whole to stop thinking of this as “just sharing” and to start yelling, “Stop, thief!” We need to stop tolerating it and excusing it when someone copies someone else’s work.

Because it’s not sharing.

It’s theft.


  1. Let’s Talk About Plagiarism,” GenealogyInTime Magazine (http://www.genealogyintime.com/ : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 3 Nov 2014), “plagiarism.”
  4. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/ : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
  5. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 3 Nov 2014), “infringement (of copyright).”
  6. Let’s Talk About Plagiarism,” GenealogyInTime Magazine (http://www.genealogyintime.com/ : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
  7. National Genealogical Society, Standards For Sharing Information With Others, PDF (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
  8. IAJGS Ethics for Jewish Genealogists,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (http://www.iajgs.org/ : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
  9. Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertification.org : accessed 3 Nov 2014). This code is also followed by Accredited Genealogists pursuant to the Professional Ethics Agreements of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists.
  10. Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists (http://www.apgen.org : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
Posted in Copyright, Terms of use | 30 Comments

With the so big message

It’s just a little book, really. Only 58 pages including the index. Okay, so it goes all the way up to 62 pages if you throw in the introduction and the table of contents.

It’s not stuffy. It’s not hard to read. It’s not in tiny little type. It’s even got pictures, for pete’s sake!

Rose.4thAnd it’s a modern guide in plain language that can help any genealogist — beginner, intermediate or advanced — who’s committed to the idea of Doing Things Right.

It’s a guide to what we know today as the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Christine Rose’s recently-published fourth edition of her Genealogical Proof Standard: Building A Solid Case1 remains a go-to resource for understanding and applying the various parts of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

It’s the end result of almost 20 years of thinking and writing that began with an article in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly in 1995,2 became the first edition of the book in 2001,3 the second edition in 20054 and the third edition in 2009.5

The impetus for this new fourth edition was the expansion of our thinking about the genealogical proof process. Instead of just dividing sources into original and derivative sources, for example, we now think of them as original or derivate or authored sources.6 Information isn’t just primary or secondary — it may be indeterminable: we may simply not know enough to categorize it any better.7

With those expansions, incorporated into the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ new Genealogy Standards, published earlier this year,8 comes this revised common-sense guide to applying those distinctions to our everyday research issues.

And with that common-sense approach comes a promise: “When the five-point process of the GPS is understood and when the steps for analyzing evidence are correctly apply many genealogical puzzles will be convincingly resolved.”9

This easy-to-digest paperback only has five chapters, with nuggets in each one:

• In Chapter 1: What is the Genealogical Proof Standard?, we’re reminded that when a record was made isn’t the only key to its credibility: “A microfilm or photocopy made in 2009 from the 1804 original deed is more credible than a poor handwritten transcription made in 1850…”10

• In Chapter 2: Building a Solid Case, we’re reminded that we need to consider why a statement is made or a record created: “the widow might fudge on the date of marriage if the pension law stated that the ceremony had to be performed by a prescribed date in order for her to be eligible.”11

• In Chapter 3: Evaluating the Records, we’re reminded that even in a single record different parts may have different credibility: “Each segment of the record may carry a different weight and each ‘fact’ is weighed individually.”12

• In Chapter 4: Case Studies, we’re reminded that “Even after a GPS case is made, each new discovery forces a complete reevaluation. … It may strengthen, or it may even negate, the previous conclusion.”13

• In Chapter 5: Writing It Up, we’re reminded that writing it up — and doing it right — “will assure our descendants and other researchers will understand our findings!”14

It’s just a little book. But oh it carries a so-big message: “Properly applying the Genealogical Proof Standard to our problems can result in a conckusion for many of those ‘brick wall’ dead ends we accumulate!”15

Highly recommended. Available from the author’s website, $9.95 plus postage.


  1. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building A Solid Case, 4th ed. (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2014).
  2. Christine Rose, “What Is Preponderance of the Evidence,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (March 1995): 3-16.
  3. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building A Solid Case (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2001).
  4. Ibid., 2nd ed. (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2005).
  5. Ibid., 3rd ed. (San Jose, Calif. : CR Publications, 2009).
  6. See Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map,” in Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014), at back flyleaf.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014).
  9. Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building A Solid Case, 4th ed. at xii.
  10. Ibid. at 6.
  11. Ibid. at 15.
  12. Ibid. at 29.
  13. Ibid. at 41.
  14. Ibid. at 52.
  15. Ibid. at 54.
Posted in General, Resources | 6 Comments

Another open letter to my AncestryDNA cousins…

Please, please, please, dear cousins.

Please share your AncestryDNA autosomal testing data with your cousins.

You know.

People like me.

DNA.helixYes, I have tested with AncestryDNA.

Yes, I know that you and I match as second or third or fourth cousins there.

Yes, I know your family tree data and my family tree data seem to be pointing in a direction towards a match in this line or in that line.

But what neither of us can tell using the AncestryDNA site is… is that the right line?

The problem is that you and I might have it all completely wrong. Your tree, or mine, might be in error. We’re cousins, yes, but it may be in — say — the Robertson line and not the Jones line. Or the Cottrell line, not the Pettypool line.

To have a chance to nail it down with any degree of confidence, we need to combine the paper trail research with the actual DNA data: what DNA exactly do we really share?

The problem is, there’s no tool available at AncestryDNA that lets us take a look at the actual data:

How much overall DNA do you and I have in common? Are we at the high end or low end for second cousins? Are we really as likely to be second cousins once removed? Should we be looking a generation away for the common ancestors?

How big are the DNA segments we share? The bigger the segments, the more likely they are to be the result of actual shared inheritance, and not simply the roll of the genetic dice. Some segments are just too small to be meaningful.

Where are the segments we share, on what chromosomes? You and I aren’t likely to be cousins in the Robertson line if you and I don’t share any segments with any of my many Robertson kin who’ve tested. We may need to look at other possible lines to find our common ancestors.

So please… please, dear cousin. Share your actual testing data. There are two ways to do it, and both — at a basic level — are free.

First, please upload your data to the website GEDmatch.com. I wrote about GEDmatch back in 2012 and even then called it a DNA geek’s dream site.

The only thing that’s changed since 2012 is that there are now some additional, fee-based goodies if you’re willing to pony up a little cash that I’m just starting to play with. But the overall basic functionality is still free. And it lets you really analyze your DNA results against those of others who’ve also chosen to upload to GEDmatch.

Read more about GEDMatch in my 2012 blog post here or in Kitty Cooper’s blog post here.

And second, please upload your AncestryDNA autosomal test data to Family Tree DNA. What’s called the Autosomal Transfer Program has two flavors, one paid and one free. The paid option, which only costs $39, is by far the better choice, but even the free one can get you started.

Family Tree DNA is a genetic genealogy DNA testing company that does autosomal testing as well as YDNA and mitochondrial DNA testing. What it offers that AncestryDNA doesn’t for autosomal testing is analytical tools. There, you can see how much DNA you have in common, how long your shared segments are, what chromosomes they’re on, who else you and a match share as a common match, and more. These are, really, the basic building blocks of using autosomal DNA data as part of good genealogical research.

The transfer system is explained on the Family Tree DNA website here, and there’s more that’s been written about it that you can read at, for example, Roberta Estes’ DNA-eXplained blog here, or Blaine Bettinger’s The Genetic Genealogist post here.

See, I really do want to work with you, cousin. But we can’t just click on shaky leaves. We need to look at the data. So… share with me, okay?

And if you’re that particular second cousin… I might even pony up the $39 fee for you…

Posted in DNA | 16 Comments