Sunday, September 21, 2014

What's In a Surname?

"History of Surnames" from Gens Video 

If you are looking for a quick and easy way to learn about surnames, this 35 minute video is a good place to start. It appears to be well-researched, doesn't say anything "weird," and has decent imagery. 

The video is divided into sections by surname type, e.g. patronymic, topographic, occupation. Most of the examples come from English, French, Italian, Spanish and German; but occasionally mentions names from Arabia, Russia, and Portugal, among other places. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Using Federal Documents at the National Archives: A Seminar in Cleveland

Making a Federal Case: Federal Land Records and Government Documents
Seminar Sponsored by the Genealogical Committee at the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH

Saturday, September 27, 2014
9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Presented by Claire Bettag, CG, FUGA

Professional genealogist, Claire Bettag, offers four lectures focusing on lesser-used, but invaluable resources - specifically federal land records and "gov docs."

Lectures being presented are:
1. NARA at your Fingertips
2. Federal Land Records
3. Bounty-Land Records
4. Government documents and The U.S. Serial Set (published by the U.S. Government Printing Office)

For further information or to register online, e-mail Chris at


Whether you are a genealogist, historian, or student, this series of talk will help you enhance your research skills, learn about new documents and how they can help your search, and may even help provide you with ideas and topics for everything from a family history to a PhD dissertation.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

rootstech 2014: Spencer Wells, DNA, and More

Brief Interview with Dr. Spencer Wells at rootstech 2014

I first learned of the work of Spencer Wells when his PBS series, The Journey of Manwas shown in the UK. I was fascinated by the way DNA could be used to tell the story of human migration. So, I was excited to see that his keynote address delivered at rootstech 2014 was available for viewing online. What I didn't realized that the video also included an opening sequence and a keynote talk by Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist. You can watch it all here.

The animation sequence was well done and added a nice, profession touch. It is difficult to tell whether it represents several branches of one family or simply many families - it spans centuries, but the same red book is written in and held by all the immigrants portrayed. A discerning eye will notice that the first family is an English one who adopted the Protestant faith and left Europe to flee religious persecution. The next sequence is of a family travelling across a very stormy Atlantic. There is farming family and what seems to be a pioneer woman with a baby. There is a 20th century wedding. The final segment is of a worried looking couple with a young child on a train, possibly fleeing from their home. The sequence closed with the tag, "Every family has a story. What's Yours?"  I don't doubt that every family has a story; but the stories shown here, with the possible exception of the family on the train, are representative of only a few Northern European immigrant groups. In light of genealogy's early association with "whiteness" as discussed by Gregory Rodriguez, such a depiction of the American immigration story is disheartening.

I have met Judy Russell and enjoy listening to her speak. This talk, however, I did not really care for. It's a wide ranging keynote but the primary topics were the Genealogical Proof Standard and Oral History. She talks about "deliberately and accurately" handing down oral histories so that they can be preserved for future generations. Oh and then verified by using the Genealogical Proof Standard. But people only pass down what is important to them, what defines them as a people or a family. Where your grandfather learned to swim may not be important to anyone, so nobody talks about and it gets forgotten. However, other things may be remembered. She provides two examples of family histories that were deliberately passed down in her family. However, one of them probably wasn't. It had the sound of something that at worst had been created so that the family sounded authentically American or at best was badly researched. 

Spence Wells, Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, gives an excellent introduction to population genetics, DNA research, and Deep Ancestry. If you don't know anything about them, this will get you up to speed in about 30 minutes. He speaks about the Genographic Project and the rates of public participation, which mirror the increasing interest in consumer DNA testing. He also discusses the grants given to indigenous people who are such an important part of the project. Since these groups have occupied the same territory, sometimes for centuries, they provide the geographic anchor to the Genographic Project.

The two speakers provide an interesting contrast. Judy Russell is concerned about losing snippets of family history, like what was your grandmothers favorite toy, in three generations. Spencer Wells is concerned with entire indigenous cultures and languages that face extinction within one or two generations.

You can view other talks from rootstech 2014 here. The only other one I've seen is the talk on iPads by Lisa Louis Cooke; it made me want an iPad even more than before.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Genes and Genealogy from Naked Genetics

In this edition of Naked Genetics from University of Cambridge listen to Professor Mark Jobling discuss how academic DNA sequencing intersects with genealogy research. While he understands that people want to know where their ancestors come from, the reality is that our ancestors didn't come from one specific location - they came from everywhere. The only ancestors we can trace with any confidence are those that passed down their Y chromosome and their mtDNA which represent only two individuals. This segment opens the program.

Then unless you are super keen on genetics, skip ahead to 18:07 to hear Dr. Turi King discuss her research on the Y-chromosome. She uses this chromosome in connection with surnames to trace Norse Viking migrations.

image credit: Zephyris

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Extra! Extra! Research all about it

Newspapers are a great source for information. I have not made wide use of them in my own research, but I know they are out there. They are becoming easier to use as an increasing number are being digitized and indexed. You will find that some papers like the historic Cleveland Plain Dealer archive are available via a subscription held by your local library and others like the New York Commercial Advertiser are available through a subscription service available anywhere.

Here is a sampling of sources for newspapers. I have not used many of them and can offer no endorsements. Many of the fee sites offer short trial periods, which might be worth taking advantage of. If you intend to use the site for a research project for work or school, it is probably worth getting a subscription especially if they offer terms of less than a year. Also check to see what is available vie a your local library or university.

Subscription Sites: **Read this article published in June 2104 before subscribing to NewspaperArchive. There have been complaints about billing, but not about content.**

Check to see what papers these sites have.  NewspaperArchive and GenealogyBank have maps on their homepage and a list of states; click on state to see city; then click on city to see newspapers and dates of publication included on the site. has a similar process, just click on “see papers by location” first.

These aggregate sites exist primarily to serve the family historian, but there is no reason why students and historians cannot use them. Don’t be put off by the phrase “enter ancestor’s name.” Simply enter in the name of the individual you are interested in, like “John Witherspoon.” Or leave the name section blank and enter a term in the keyword section, like “slavery” or “immigrants.” The search can even be limited to state, city, or even a particular newspaper.  

Free Sites
Google’s United States Online Historical Newspapers here or here. Visit this page from for tips for using newspapers on Google.

ChroniclingAmerica from the Library of Congress 

Lists of Digital Newspapers 
Historical Newspapers Online from the University of Pennsylvania  This is an enormous list . It is organized by state; the first column begins with Alabama, the second column begins with Missouri.

Wikipedia: List of online newspaper archives  This is a world wide list organized by country. You can skip to the USA (organized by state) by going here.

Your Local Library 
Check you local library to see what sources the offer. Here is what is available from the Cleveland Public Library. Most of their newspaper databases require a Cleveland Public Library card to access from home.

Articles on using  newspapers in genealogical research:
Using Newspapers for Genealogical Research
Family History in the News: How to Find & Use Newspapers for Genealogical Research

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