Being there when you can’t be there

Every year, every conference, it’s the same-old, same-old.

“I can’t get time off from work.”

“My kids are still in school.”

“I can’t travel.”

“I have family responsibilities.”

streamThe Legal Genealogist feels your pain, especially in early June each year when there are so many genealogical education events we all want to attend.

I can’t get everywhere I want to be, either. And haven’t yet learned to be in two places at one time. (I hope to see some of you at the Ontario Genealogical Society Conference in Toronto, June 3-5, and I’m excited about that — but it does mean I’ll miss the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree and DNA Day this year.)

So here’s an option for folks like me who can’t be at the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree and DNA Day this year.

There’s a livestream of many of the sessions.

On Thursday, June 2, 2016, six sessions focusing on DNA testing will be live-streamed. Each of them is $20, or you can get the whole package for $99. Information and registration be found on the Registration & Viewing Portal page for 2016 Genetic Genealogy: The Future of the Past.

The sessions are:

• 8:30-9:30 a.m. PDT: Tim Janzen, MD, presenting Family Finder, 23andme, and Ancestry DNA: An Introduction

10-11 a.m. PDT: Paul Alan Woodbury presenting Developing a DNA Testing Plan

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. PDT: Emily D. Aulicino presenting Verify, Correct, and Expand Your Lineage through DNA Testing

2-3 p.m. PDT: Katherine Hope Borges presenting Why Y? Case Studies for Y-DNA Solutions

3:30-4:30 p.m. PDT: Diahan Southard presenting Circles or Triangles? What Shape Is Your DNA?

5-6 p.m. PDT: Blaine T. Bettinger, PhD, JD, presenting Genetic Genealogy: Year in Review 2016

That’s great. And it’s not even half of what’s going to be available. And — even better — the rest of the livestreaming is free. Thanks to the sponsorship of Ancestry, you can watch as many as 14 sessions on Friday, June 3 through Sunday June 5, absolutely free. You just have to register in advance at the 2016 Jamboree Live Stream Registration Page. Even the breaks and lunchtimes will be filled, with videos from Ancestry’s training team — all free.

The Friday, June 3, sessions to be livestreamed are:

1-2 p.m. PDT: James M. Beidler presenting German Immigrant Waves: Contrasts and Sources

2:30-3:30 p.m. PDT: Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, presenting Problems and Pitfalls of a “Reasonably Shallow” Search

4-5 p.m. EDT: Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, FMGS, FUGA, presenting Tracking Migrations and More: The Records of Old Settlers Organizations

5:30-6:30 p.m. PDT: George Goodloe Morgan presenting Principles of Effective Evidence Analysis

The Saturday, June 4, sessions to be livestreamed are:

8:30-9:30 a.m. PDT: Lisa A. Alzo, MFA, presenting Getting Started with Eastern European Research

10-11 a.m. PDT: Cyndi Ingle, presenting Be Your Own Digital Archivist: Preserve Your Research

11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. PDT: C. Fritz Juengling, PhD, AG, presenting German Names: Their Origins, Meanings, and Distribution

2-3 p.m. PDT: J. H. Fonkert, CG, presenting Using Military Pension Files to Fill Gaps in Family History

3:30-4:30 p.m. PDT: Thomas Wright Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS, presenting Maximizing Your Use of Evidence

5-6 p.m. PDT: Michael D. Lacopo, DVM, presenting German Genealogy on the Internet: Beyond the Basics

The Sunday, June 5, sessions to be livestreamed are:

8:30-9:30 a.m. PDT: Peggy Clements Lauritzen, AG, presenting The Firelands, the Connecticut Western Reserve and the Ohio Territory

10-11 a.m. PDT: Tessa Ann Keough, presenting Avoiding Shiny Penny Syndrome with Your Genealogy

12:30-1:30 p.m. PDT: Barbara M. Randall, presenting All Aboard: Staying on Track with Your Research

2-3 p.m. PDT: Debbie Mieszala, CG, presenting U. S. Passport Applications

Now remember, you have to register and pay for the livestreamed presentations from the Thursday, June 2, 2016 Genetic Genealogy: The Future of the Past.

And you still have to register in advance for the free livestream for the Friday-Sunday, June 3-5, 2016 SCGS Jamboree.

Not a bad way to spend some time in early June.

Being there when you can’t be there.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Read the fine print

The genealogy website MyHeritage announced this week that it’s launching a new DNA matching service. Using raw DNA files from testing companies such as Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA or 23andMe, and family tree files uploaded by its users, the company will match users to others in its database.

And before you even think about doing this, make sure you understand the terms of use — and that you do NOT have to agree to the Consent Agreement to participate.


That warning has to come even before explaining what the service is here, because — the way the upload page is presented right now — it’s got a built-in “Gotcha!” that needs to be fixed even if the rest of the program is perfectly fine. The Legal Genealogist repeats: you do NOT have to agree to the Consent Agreement to participate.

I’ll explain what that is once we all understand what this matching service is all about.

The main benefit of the new MyHeritage matching service is that you’ll be able to combine the DNA matches with MyHeritage’s other matching technologies, such as Smart Matches™ and Record Matches, and, because of the size of MyHeritage’s international user base, potentially link up with more — or at least other — cousins to work with on your research.

As MyHeritage puts it, you can “review your matches’ family trees (excluding living people), and filter your matches by common surnames or geographies to focus on more relevant matches. This new technology will also enable you to prove and disprove other types of matches (such as Smart Matches™ and Record Matches) and connect with new relatives in order to collaborate. You’ll benefit from our vast international user base of 82 million registered users, plus the 10 million additional registered users on, and get matches you would not receive otherwise.”1

The company notes that “DNA and traditional genealogy methods, such as family trees and historical records, go hand in hand. DNA can sometimes help where traditional research encounters a dead end, while traditional genealogy is often required to pinpoint an exact relationship path discovered by DNA.”2

At the moment, only data uploads are active — the matching service hasn’t launched yet. Users who get in on this ground floor can upload their data for free and the matching service will remain free for them even if, as seems likely, the DNA matching service becomes a premium feature down the road.

Sounds good. And it’s likely to be good. But with this and any service like this, it’s essential that we’re all sure we read, understand and are comfortable with those pesky legal details called terms of use.

Terms of use, remember, are the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it. These are limits that are different from copyright protection, since the law says what is and isn’t copyrighted and you can own a thing without owning the copyright. So this isn’t copyright law; it’s contract law — you and whoever owns the thing you want to see or copy or use reach a deal.3

And when it comes to a system like this one, terms of use also govern whether we can use the MyHeritage DNA matching service and, if we do, what rights we’re giving MyHeritage.

And that’s where that built-in “Gotcha!” comes into play: the upload area on MyHeritage has two sets of terms and two “I have read and accept” checkboxes. Only one — the DNA Terms of Use — is required to participate. The other one — the Consent Agreement — is not required. But if you go ahead and check that checkbox, thinking that it is required, you’re giving up rights to MyHeritage that you might not want to give up.

The Consent Agreement is for a program “designed to facilitate DNA-based research (both internal and through third-party organizations) based on the DNA Results uploaded or transferred to MyHeritage” and it “collects, preserves and analyzes genealogical lineage, historical records, surveys, genetic information, and other records (collectively, “Research Information”) provided by users in order to conduct research studies to better understand, among other things, human evolution and migration, population genetics, regional health issues, ethnographic diversity and boundaries, genealogy and the history of the human species. Researchers hope that the Project will be an invaluable tool for a wide range of scholars and researchers interested in genealogy, anthropology, evolution, languages, cultures, medicine, and other topics.”4

MyHeritage says, plainly, in the Consent Agreement, that “(p)articipation in this Project is purely voluntary and may be revoked at any time” — so again it isn’t required to participate in DNA matching, and if you accidentally checked that checkbox already, you can get out of it now. If you do choose to participate, you’re authorizing MyHeritage and its unidentified “third-party organizations” to access your personal information, in combination with your DNA data. It won’t publish any identifying information without your specific express permission — but it will use it for research.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of a research project. AncestryDNA has one, too. So does 23andMe. But it should be clearer from the outset that you don’t have to participate in the research project in order to use the DNA matching service.

As for the terms of use for the service itself, again, we need to read, understand and be comfortable with what they provide before participating. Here are the basics, drawn from the terms of use dated 1 May 2016, that apparently can only be displayed once you’re on the website and logged in there (I couldn’t find any externally accessible link):

• You give MyHeritage permission “to analyze and match the DNA Results using methods available now and developed in the future, to disclose the results of the matching and analysis to you, to disclose the matches to others that your DNA has matched and provide them the opportunity to contact you through the Website.”

• You can remove your DNA results from your profile page, but your permission to MyHeritage to use them is forever: “you grant MyHeritage a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA Results, and any DNA Results you submit for any person from whom you obtained legal authorization as described in this Agreement, and to use, host, sublicense and distribute the resulting analysis to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered.”

• You give MyHeritage the right to “transfer, lease, rent, sell, share and/or or otherwise distribute de-identified information to third parties for any purpose, including without limitation, internal business purposes. Whenever we transfer, lease, rent, sell, share and/or or otherwise distribute your information to third parties, this information will be aggregated and personal identifiers (such as names, birth dates, etc.) will be removed.”

• You give up all claims against MyHeritage arising from the DNA matching service: “You hereby release the Company from any and all claims, liens, demands, actions or suits in connection with the DNA Results, including, without limitation, errors, omissions, claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, emotional distress or economic loss. This Agreement continues even if you stop using the Website or DNA Services.”

• If there is a dispute, it has to be litigated in Israel under Israeli law: “This Agreement and any dispute regarding the DNA Services, shall be exclusively governed by the laws of the State of Israel, without regard to conflict of law provisions, and you agree that any legal proceeding in connection with the execution, performance and/or enforcement of this Agreement shall be brought exclusively to the courts located in Tel Aviv, Israel.”


• If you do something with respect to the DNA results that gets MyHeritage into any kind of legal jam, you’re on the hook to MyHeritage: “You agree to indemnify and hold MyHeritage, its subsidiaries, agents, licensors, managers, and affiliates, and their respective officers, agents, partners and employees, harmless from any loss, liability, claim, or demand, including reasonable attorneys’ fees, made by any third party due to or arising out of your use of or access to the DNA Services, your violation of this Agreement, breach of this Agreement and/or any breach of your representations and warranties set forth above and/or if any DNA Results that you post on the Website or through the DNA Services causes the Company to be liable to any third party.”

So… read these documents carefully. Make sure you understand what they say. If you’re not comfortable with them, don’t upload your data. Once you upload it, you can stop it from being displayed, but otherwise can’t stop it from being used.

And again… you do NOT have to agree to the Consent Agreement and the research project in order to get in on the DNA matching.


  1. MyHeritage is Adding Free DNA Matching,” MyHeritage blog, posted 19 May 2016 ( : accessed 21 May 2016).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: a terms of use primer,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 21 May 2016).
  4. DNA Informed Consent Agreement,” 1 May 2016, ( : accessed 21 May 2016).
Posted in DNA, Terms of use | 5 Comments

Gaining a War of 1812 ancestor

Every so often, you just have to check the records again.

A name you thought you searched thoroughly once… well, you just need to do it again.

And again.

And again.

In part, it’s because there are more and more records coming online.

In part, it’s because each and every one of us is learning every day, and in learning we become better, more disciplined, more thorough researchers.

And maybe, just maybe, something that we didn’t see the first time, didn’t find the first time, wasn’t online the first time … maybe it’s there now.

Boston.1812Case in point: The Legal Genealogist‘s fourth great grandfather, Boston Shew, born around 1790 in North Carolina.1 He took out a marriage bond in Wilkes County in October 1816 to marry Elizabeth Brewer;2 later census records support the conclusion he and Elizabeth actually did marry.3

By 1820, Boston had two children under age 10 in his household — one boy and one girl.4 By 1830, there were two boys and four girls.5 In 1840, there were three boys and five girls.6

By 1850, Boston had moved his family to Cherokee County, Alabama. There, the census and other evidence lets us put names on the sons who had been so steadily recorded as tick marks in earlier years: Simon, the first-born, born around 1819 in North Carolina;7 Daniel, the second son and my third great grandfather, born around 1826 in North Carolina.8

But something happened to their mother, Boston’s wife Elizabeth, between 1850 and 1860. We don’t know what, but by 1860 Boston was struggling to try to establish and support a very young second family in Arkansas.9 And we’re not sure what happened to Boston and his second wife; we only know that his sons by that marriage were back in Cherokee County, Alabama in 187010 — and that there are no later records of Boston or his second wife.

Great information… a lot of detail… and yet there was something that I missed the first or second or fifth time around.

Something I picked up in yet another sweep of the records yesterday.

Something that, to me, is monumental.

As you can see from the carded record here, Boston served in the War of 1812.11

He and his brother Simon — his bondsman on his marriage bond to Elizabeth — both served in Captain Ambrose Carlton’s company of North Carolina militia. And he and Simon both got — and sold their rights to — warrants for bounty land. Boston assigned his right to 160 acres to Miner W. Gibson,12 and Simon assigned his right to 40 acres to Sophia C. Jones13 and his right to 120 acres to Edward A. Temple who, in turn assigned it to Robert Coles.14

All of the patents say the same thing that this service index carded record shows: they served in Captain Ambrose Carlton’s company of North Carolina militia in the War of 1812.

Now… that’s pretty much all that’s available online right now.

But it’s sure more than used to be available online … and it’s pointing right at some potentially terrific records.

While Boston didn’t live long enough to qualify for a service pension,15 there should be a bounty land file at the National Archives, a compiled military service record, perhaps a unit history.

Yes, it pays to check the records again, every so often.

And again…

And again…

And again…


  1. See 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, 26th District, p. 6(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 3.
  2. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  3. See, e.g., 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee Co., Ala., pop. sched., 26th District, p. 6(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Boston and Elizabeth Shew.
  4. 1820 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 494 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 25 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M33, roll 83.
  5. 1830 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, p. 335 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 125.
  6. 1840 U.S. census, Grayson County, Virginia, p. 305 (stamped), Boston “Shoe” household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Nov 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 555
  7. 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee Co., Ala., pop. sched., 27th District, p. 136(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 1054, Simon Shew.
  8. Ibid., dwelling/family 1055, Danl Shew.
  9. 1860 U.S. census, Izard County, Arkansas, Franklin Township, population schedule, p. 349 (stamped), dwelling 150, family 148, Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 43.
  10. 1870 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, Leesburg, population schedule, p. 268(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 23, B and J D Shoe in R M Hale household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 7.
  11. Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War of 1812, microfilm publication M602, roll 188 of 234 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1964); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 20 May 2016), carded record of Boston Shoe, Private, Capt. Carlton’s Company, North Carolina Militia.
  12. Boston Shew, warrantee (Cass County, Nebraska), land patent no. 22890, 1 August 1860; “Land Patent Search,” digital images, General Land Office Records ( : accessed 20 May 2016).
  13. Ibid., Simon Shew, warrantee (Clarke County, Iowa, land patent no. 97173, 1 October 1855.
  14. Ibid., Simon Shew, warrantee (Ringgold County, Iowa, land patent no. 38814, 1 July 1859.
  15. Service pensions from the War of 1812 didn’t begin until 1871. See “An Act granting Pensions to certain Soldiers and Sailors of the War of eighteen hundred and twelve, and the Widows of decease Soldiers,” 16 Stat. 411 (14 Feb 1871).
Posted in My family | 6 Comments

Staying on top of records access issues

The Legal Genealogist has said it before and will say it again and again:

As genealogists, we need to be in the forefront of records access issues. If we can’t see the documents that give us the evidence we need, of relationships and more, then our research results will suffer.1

It really is up to us, as individuals and as a community to stay on top of records access issues, to understand them, and to speak out whenever the need arises.

Alert IconIssues like the loss of access to the last three years of the Social Security Death Index.2

Issues like the Kansas Supreme Court rule on marriage records that went into effect in October of last year, that means that marriage information that had been publicly available for decades is no longer accessible.3

Issues like the new European Union rules on privacy that may threaten even Holocaust research.4

These and so many other issues come up, all the time, and threaten our ability to access the information we want and need.

Now I know it’s easy to say that we need to stay on top of these issues.

But today, thanks to the work of others, it’s also a whole lot easier than it used to be to do.

Thanks, in particular, to the work of others that we can take advantage of — delivered right to our email in-boxes.

First, head on over to the website of the Records Preservation & Access Committee (RPAC), at Use the Subscribe to Blog via Email link in the upper right hand corner to have new posts from RPAC delivered right into your email from this joint genealogical committee focusing on nothing but records access issues.

RPAC’s sponsoring members are the National Genealogical Society (NGS), the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), and participating members are the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen), the American Society of Genealogists (ASG), ProQuest and

Second, head on over to the FGS website itself, and to the additional blog RPAC has available there at There you can read through older posts that will explain a lot of the background of some ongoing issues. I don’t think you need to subscribe to posts at this older site, but you can if you want to be sure not to miss something that accidentally gets posted only at this older blog rather than the new one. Use the icon on the right hand side of the black navigation bar at the top.

More importantly, however, this site is a resource for explanations and materials before the launch of the site.

Finally — and boy is this ever a “last but not least” part of staying on top of records access issues — the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) has an announcement list, the IAJGS Records Access Alert. When it was started up some time ago, it was only open to select groups. But at the IAJGS 2015 October Board meeting, IAJGS made the wonderful decision to open the Alert list to anyone who is interested in records access.

Subscribing to this list is a little more complicated, so let me run through the steps:

1. Head over to this link to sign up.

2. Enter your email address in the first box for the sign-up.

3. Enter a first name, a last name and an organization in the second box. You can use your local society as your organization — and you can use Legal Genealogist if you don’t belong to a local society.5 (John Doe Legal Genealogist will work, but only if your name is John Doe…)

4. Optionally, you can choose a password so nobody else can change your subscription — but be aware this isn’t much of a security check, and the password may be emailed to you occasionally, so don’t use the one you use for, say, your banking.

5. Check the radio button if you want to get one daily digest (on those days when there may be more than one announcement).

6. Wait until you get a confirming email from the list, and then click on the link in the email to validate your subscription.

That’s it: you’ll then be subscribed, and get the announcements from the list. It’s only for announcements, not discussion. This isn’t a chat list so the only email you’ll get will be the announcements and alerts. That means, of course, that you’re only going to get an email when there’s something important to be aware of, and not just on a routine daily or weekly basis.

Be aware, of course, that the best source of information about threats to records access is the community itself. It really is a “see-something-say-something” situation. If you become aware of an issue with records access in your areas, you can let RPAC know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , and you can alert IAJGS at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Records access isn’t something we can take for granted — and it’s not a responsibility we can leave to someone else. We all need to stay informed and to speak out when necessary.

Join in by staying aware… and staying alert.


  1. See, e.g., Judy G. Russell, “Staying alert,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Nov 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  2. See ibid., “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013. And see 42 U.S.C. §1306c.
  3. See “Kansas Supreme Court Rule would redact Marriage Certificates,” RPAC blog, posted 1 April 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  4. See Sam Sokol, “Could new European digital privacy laws hurt Holocaust research?,” Jerusalem Post, posted 27 Oct 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  5. Yes, I do have permission from IAJGS for you to do that!
Posted in General, Records Access | 2 Comments

Milking every detail

On the 6th day of December 1909, Carrie H. Viereck of Kent County, Delaware, was appointed guardian of the four Viereck children: Henry W., Jr., who was 15 years of age; Elizabeth V., who was 11; Mary M., who was four; and Bertha S., who was two.

Del-guardianShe was, she said in her petitions for the younger children, the widow of Henry W. Viereck, who died intestate on the 24th of October 1909, and entitled to dower in the real estate of her late husband, several small rental properties and other lots worth about $3,500 total.

The children were each entitled to a one-fourth undivided interest in their father’s estate, and the older two were the named beneficiaries for a life insurance policy worth $2,000.1

Now by the early 20th century it wasn’t all that unusual for a mother to be named guardian of her children when they were inheriting property from their father, and in this case the oldest boy, Henry Jr., who was over the age of 14 and so entitled to choose a guardian, asked to have Carrie appointed.

So this is a simple, typical, family, where the father died and the mother took over and, with court approval, managed her children’s property, right?

Not exactly.

There are two clues in what The Legal Genealogist has already told you about this case that things may not have been exactly what they seem on the surface.

You’ve spotted both of them, I’m sure, and you may be wondering about those two not-quite-adding-up facts.

The first, of course, is the seven-year age gap between Elizabeth, the 11-year-old, and Mary, the four-year-old. By itself, not all that unusual: child mortality may have taken a toll in the intervening years.

But add in the second fact: that only the older two children were named as beneficiaries of the insurance policy. Now you have a reason to think twice about this family.

And that’s where the reading every word part comes in.

Because Henry Jr.’s guardianship papers add a key word to the mix here. His petition for the appointment of a guardian reads, in relevant part, that “he is a minor above the age of fourteen years … and … prays the Court to appoint his said step-mother, Carrie H. Viereck as his guardian…”2

Step-mother, not mother.

And if Carrie was Henry Jr.’s step-mother, and Henry Jr. and Elizabeth are the two being treated differently, then she was likely Elizabeth’s step-mother as well.

You can confirm that theory, in this case, by looking at the census records for 1910. Carrie was the head of household on that census in Milford, shown with her step-son Henry William, step-daughter Elizabeth V., and daughters Mary M. and Bertha S. More, she’s shown as mother of only three children, all three surviving, and there’s also a 12-year-old son Harold E. Henry in the household.3

Now that tells us something about Carrie’s relationship to these older two children. That oldest boy didn’t have to choose her as his guardian. He could have opted for someone from his father’s family, if any had lived in the area, or some adult friend, or a neighbor. So they must have been getting along reasonably well.

And that’s borne out by reading every word and milking every detail from the rest of the file. Because when the boy grew to be a man, he married and moved to Philadelphia — and sold what remained of his interest in his father’s estate to that step-mother Carrie.4

Reading every word, you’d pick up the fact that the boy turned 21 on the 8th of January 1915 (so you now have his exact birthday: 8 January 1894), that he had by then married a woman named Elizabeth, and that he sold his rights in the property to Carrie by deed dated 10 April 1915.5

And, reading every word, you’d pick up the fact that his sister Elizabeth turned 21 by the time the estate was finally settled in 1920: she turned 21 on 23 February 1920 (so you now have her exact birthday: 23 February 1899).6

There’s more, of course, to be found in this file, as there is in just about every court file on just about every family.

As long as you read every word.

And milk every detail.


  1. Kent County, Del., Orphans’ Court Record 1909-20, #55, Estate of Henry W. Viereck Sr., Petitions for Appointment of Guardian; digital images, “Delaware Orphan Court Records, 1680-1978 > Kent > Orphans’ Court records 1889-1967” FamilySearch ( : accessed 18 May 2016), citing Delaware Public Archives, Dover.
  2. Ibid., Petition of Henry W. Viereck of Milford, Kent Co., Del., September term 1909.
  3. 1910 U.S. census, Kent County, Delaware, Milford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 20, p. 184(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 2, Carrie H. Viereck household; digital image, ( : accessed 18 May 2016); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 145.
  4. Kent County, Del., Orphans’ Court Record 1909-20, #55, Estate of Henry W. Viereck Sr., Petition for Partition, 7 Feb 1920.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., Confirmation and Decree for Distribution, 6 March 1920.
Posted in General, Methodology | 1 Comment

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

In the December 1865 term of the District Court for Poweshiek County, Iowa, Job Cushman sued George W. Chambers and Eliza Jane Chambers, his wife.

lienThe petition of the plaintiff Cushman sought the foreclosure of a mortgage against both of the defendants and judgment on a vendor’s lien against George W. Chambers arising out of the sale by Cushman to the Chamberses of the northeast quarter of Section 16, Township 81 North, Range 16 West in Poweshiek County.1

Now… most of us know what a mortgage is. Unless we happened to inherit real property … or a ton of money … from our parents or some earlier generation, most of us have or have had mortgages to buy our homes. We know, then, that by definition, a mortgage is:

An estate created by a conveyance absolute in its form, but intended to secure the performance of some act, such as the payment of money, and the like, by the grantor or some other person, and to become void if the act is performed agreeably to the terms prescribed at the time of making such conveyance.

A conditional conveyance of land, designed as a security for the payment of money, the fulfillment of some contract, or the performance of some act, and to be void upon such payment, fulfillment, or performance.

A debt by specialty, secured by a pledge of lands, of which the legal ownership is vested in the creditor, but of which, in equity, the debtor and those claiming under him remain the actual owners, until debarred by judicial sentence or their own laches.

Mortgage is a right granted to the creditor over the property of the debtor for the security of his debt, and gives him the power of having the property seized and sold in default of payment.2

Sigh… The language of the law. It’s that last one most of us know today, the granting of a right to a creditor to secure a debt. In most states, these days, title to the land stays with the buyer and the creditor only gets the right to come after the land if the mortgage or other debt isn’t paid.3

In the Cushman case, the mortgage debt was clearly a debt for the purchase of the land itself — sometimes called a purchase money mortgage.

But what’s this lien business? And particularly what’s a vendor’s lien?

The definition of a lien should sound very familiar:

A qualified right of property which a creditor has in or over specific property of his debtor, as security for the debt or charge or for performance of some act.

In every case in which property, either real or personal, is charged with the payment of a debt or duty, every such charge may be denominated a lien on the property.4

And a vendor’s lien was a very particular kind of lien: “A lien for purchase money remaining unpaid, allowed in equity to the vendor of land, when the statement of receipt of the price in the deed is not in accordance with the fact.”5

So, in other words, a mortgage is generally a type of lien — that secured interest in specific land for payment of a debt — and a vendor’s lien is an even more specific type of lien, for a balance owed in the Cushman v. Chambers case on a promissory note given in addition to the mortgage.


  1. Poweshiek County, Iowa, District Court Record Book B: 1, Cushman v. Chambers, December term 1865; ; digital images, “Iowa, Poweshiek County Probate, School, and Court Records, 1850-1954 > District Court complete record, 1854-1863, vol B,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 May 2016).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 789-790, “mortgage.”
  3. See generally Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 17 May 2016), “mortgage.”
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 719, “lien.”
  5. Ibid., 1213, “vendor’s lien.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 1 Comment

The records of renunciation

It is a strong word, the word renounce.

To the ordinary dictionary, it means “to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration (renounce his errors).”1

To the law, it means to “reject; cast off; repudiate; disclaim; forsake; abandon; divest one’s self of a right, power, or privilege. Usually it implies an affirmative act of disclaimer or disavowal.”2

Burlington.renounceAnd to the genealogist, it means a terrific set of records, useful in proving family relationships beyond almost any other set of records we might ever hope to find.

Particularly when it appears in the context of the second definition given in the law dictionaries: that of renouncing probate. Meaning, in English practice, “refusing to take upon one’s self the office of executor or executrix. Refusing to take out probate under a will wherein one has been appointed executor or executrix.”3 Or, just as commonly in American practice, the act of declining to serve as administrator of an estate when the law would have given the person preference to act in that role.

Case in point: the volumes of renunciations filed with the Surrogate– the chief probate officer — of Burlington County, New Jersey, between 1878 and 1908 that The Legal Genealogist came across last night, digitized on FamilySearch. (And why, yes, I am speaking this Saturday, May 21, at the Burlington County Historical Society, at 2 p.m. — come on out and join us!)

New Jersey law at the time, like the law of most jurisdictions, gave preference in administering an estate to the spouse and then next of kin of any person who died without a will. If none of them would serve, then the court would appoint someone else, often someone the family asked to have appointed.4 And many family members didn’t want to serve, didn’t feel capable of serving, or had agreed that someone else would be better.

So they filed renunciations — formal statements declining to serve.

These are not long documents. They’re filled with boilerplate language. Only rarely is a particular reason given for not serving, as, for example, when Sterling Bonsall renounced his appointment as executor and trustee of the will of Joshua Eyre in 1879 and explained: “the property is in another state and my health will not allow of attending to his wishes and administering on his Estate…”5

But despite those limitations, these are records not to be missed, because nearly every one spells out genealogical information that’s priceless. Just a few examples, to whet your appetite:

• Rebecca Ann Clevenger, Mary Ann Parker, Haldale Kirby and Mary Parker were identified as the “widow & children of Samuel P. Paker of Springfield Township who died intestate,” and filed their renuncation 21 November 1878.6

• Hannah M. Shamalia was the aunt of Charles Leeds, and renounced administration of his estate in favor of Henry S. Haines.7 Esther M. Stiles was Leeds’ niece, and also renounced in Haines’ favor,8 as did another aunt, Mary Morris.9

• Five daughters of John Lukemire — Mary Pitman, Elizabeth White, Eunice S. Wells, Annie McCully, and Esther H. Lukemire — all renounced their right to administer their father’s estate, and instead “request(ed) that Charles M. Sloan be appointed.”10

• Nathan M. Stevenson, Stacy Stevenson, Cornell Stevenson, Ann Pew, Sarah Cox and Edwin Steward, identified as “nephews and nieces of Mary Stevenson, who died intestate, being entitled to share in the administration of her effects,” renounced their right and asked, instead, that Mary Anna Steward be appointed.11

• The next of kin of Elizabeth C. Fort, who died without a will, were Charles S. Cook, Sarah G. Cook, Jane Lamson, Abram R. Woolston and Thomas C. Woolston, and they all renounced in favor of Joshua S. Lamson of Bordentown.12

• When Lillie E. Hopkins died without leaving a will, it was her mother, Elizabeth A. Howard, and her sister Sallie E. Hopkins, who renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of Joseph M. Brick.13

• And when Jesse H. Gray died intestate, his widow and children all renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of James Lippincott. The renunciation identified all of the family members — including not just the daughters, but their husbands as well: “Sarah Gray widow and Mary B Estill wife of Charles Estill, Keturah H. Gray, Sarah Jane Parker wife Joseph G Parker, Beulah Dubel wife of John H Dubel, Roxanna F. Clevenger wife of Wm. D Clevenger and Samuel H Gray, children…”14

Now in this particular county during this particular time period, these renunciations were filed in a separate book in the Surrogate’s Office. In many other jurisdictions and at different times, the procedure may well have been different: you’ll find renunciations in the court minutes, or in the file granting administration, or in the loose papers. And, of course, there are times when you won’t find it at all.

But if you’re trying to reconstruct the Gray family of Burlington County in the 1870s, knowing who each of the husbands of each of the daughters was would give you a big leg up in your research, no?

Worth looking for.

As a way to for us to get information when they, back then, gave up their right to administer an estate.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 16 May 2016), “renounce.”
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1021, “renounce.”
  3. Ibid., “renouncing probate.”
  4. See §28, An act respecting the orphans’ court, and relating to the powers and duties of the ordinary, and the orphans’ court and surrogates, 27 March 1874, in Revision of the Laws of New Jersey (Trenton, N.J., John L. Murphy, Printer, 1877), 758; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  5. Burlington County, New Jersey, Surrogate’s Court, Renunciations 1: 5, In re Estate of Joshua Eyre, renunciation of Sterling Bonsall, 20 January 1879; digital images, “New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980 > Burlington > Renunciations 1878-1908 vol 1-2,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  6. Ibid., In re Estate of Samuel Parker, 21 Nov 1878, Renunciations 1: 1-2.
  7. Ibid., In re Estate of L. Charles Leeds, 23 Dec 1878, Renunciations 1: 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., Renunciations 1: 3.
  10. Ibid., In re Estate of John Lukemire, 25 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 7.
  11. Ibid., In re Estate of Mary Stevenson, 14 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 9.
  12. Ibid., In re Estate of Elizabeth C. Fort, 14 March 1879, Renunciations 1: 11-13.
  13. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 21 July 1879, Renunciations 1: 21-22.
  14. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 16 Aug 1879, Renunciations 1: 23.
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources | 1 Comment

The other side of the coin

Just yesterday, at the spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists, The Legal Genealogist stood before a group of enthusiasts and reminded everyone in the room (the speaker included) that DNA — as a research tool — has limitations.

DNA heartThe one point I try to stress, each and every time I talk about using DNA testing, is this: DNA can tell us how we are biologically related to each other. DNA doesn’t — and can’t — tell us how families are formed.

Think for example of the case where DNA proves that this child is not the biological child of this man. That’s a common scenario, whether it’s a relationship today or (as in the case of Richard III and the questions DNA has raised about his paternity1) a relationship in the far distant past.

And think about what DNA does not and cannot ever tell us: whether that child loved that man, and that man loved and cherished and guided and raised that child. It may have been the child of his wife by her first husband. Or the child of his wife’s sister. Or a child taken in to the family when no-one else would or could. But the only the bonds of biology can be tested through DNA; the bonds of the heart don’t show up in our genetic code.

This point was stressed, in Alva Noë’s post DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are, on NPR’s blog back in January, where he pointed out that:

family and family history are one thing, and DNA-based ancestry is another. You just can’t map these beautiful, defining, important family stories onto a DNA tree. … (Y)ou literally can’t. DNA draws the boundaries in the wrong place.2

And, he went on:

As a culture, we like simple solutions. And the idea that who, and what, we really are is written in the language of the genome, that it is inside us — and that we need only send away to have it decoded — is almost irresistible. But to judge by the example of (Henry Louis) Gates’ television show (Finding Your Roots), the stories that matter, the ones that bring his guests and his viewers to tears, are sagas of marriage and migration, of childrearing, hard work and love. It is family that matters — and family is relationship, not DNA. Family is not to be found inside us. The DNA story is a good one, and no doubt important for certain purposes, e.g., medical. But when what we want to know is who we are, it won’t deliver the answers.3

Noë then urged his readers to listen to a presentation by Professor Mark Thomas of University College London on the topic at the Who Do You Think You Are Live conference in Birmingham, England, last year. It’s worth lending an ear to Thomas, even though he focuses almost entirely on the limits of YDNA and mtDNA in determining ancestral origins, not taking much into account from the newer autosomal DNA tests.

But when we review what Thomas says — when we think about what’s written in our genetic code — and above all when we set out to use DNA in our research, the bottom line we have to keep in mind as genealogists (rather than as geneticists) is this: families are more than blood or DNA.

That stepfather and stepson are family every bit as much as two related by biology — and in far more important ways than biology alone suggests.

Let’s not forget the relationships of the heart even as we enthusiastically learn more about the relationships of the genome.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Case closed … and another opened,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  2. Alva Noë, “DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are,” Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society, NPR, posted 29 January 2016 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  3. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 19 Comments

A life story discovered and lost

I might have called him Uncle John, this brother of my grandmother.

Maybe Uncle Johann, or even Uncle Jo.

It’s hard to say now how his name would have been pronounced by the relatives who, like The Legal Genealogist, grew up speaking English and not his native German.

What nicknames we might have used.

If we’d ever had the chance to know him.

If he had lived.


I might have asked him — that Johann Nuckel — about his childhood in Bremen, as the oldest child of my great grandparents, Carsten Hinrich Wilhelm Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe (Smidt) Nuckel.

I might have asked him if he had any problems as a boy because his parents were married on the 25th of October 18841 and he — well, he was born not even three months later, on 12 January 1885.2

I might have asked him about the dark days of his childhood, as his parents buried one child in 1892,3 when he himself was just seven, and another in 1893,4 and another in 1896,5 and another in 1898.6 And then lost a child through stillbirth in 1904.7

I might have asked him about any schooling he’d gotten, and what it was like to be a factory worker there just after the turn of the 20th century.

I might have asked him what led him to the recruiting office of the Bremen military in 1905. It may have been that he had simply reached the age when he could be conscripted for two or three years of active military service, and he may just have been reporting for duty. He may have tried to enlist for one year of active service followed by six years of reserve duty, rather than the longer conscripted service.8

I might have asked him what he did in the German military after that day in 1905 when he was there in that recruiting office. If he actually was serving or waiting to be called or…

And I definitely would have thanked him for going into that recruiting office on that day in 1905. Because it was there, in that recruiting office, that his actions led to the creation of the one document I’ve seen so far that tells me I even had a great uncle named Johann.

One document that proves he was the first-born child of my great grandparents. That he was my grandmother’s brother. Because this one document — the recruiting commission alphabetical list just now digitized by Ancestry from the Bremen State Archive — names his parents: Carsten Hinrich Wilhelm Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe (Smidt) Nuckel.

It’s always a sweet moment when a new resource gives you another branch — even a twig — to add to the family tree.

But so many of these moments in my father’s German family are so bittersweet. If there is any thread that ties that family together, it’s the thread of early death.

And this Johann is not an exception to this family rule.

Because the same document that puts Johann Nuckel in my family tree takes him out of our family story as well.

Just below the entry for 1905 is another entry for 1906. “Gestorben an 17 Februar 1906,” that entry reads. “Sterbeliste Nr. 813.” He was just 21 years old when he died on the 17th of February 1906.

Maybe I’d have called him Uncle John, this brother of my grandmother.

Maybe Uncle Johann, or even Uncle Jo.

It’s hard to say now what tales he’d have added to our family story.

If we’d ever had the chance to know him.

If he had lived.


  1. Bremen Standesamt (City Registrar), Heiraten (Marriage) Nr. 713/1884, Nuckel-Smidt, 25 Oct 1884.
  2. Bremen Ersatzkommission, 1874-1914, Alphabetische Liste des Aushebungsbezirks Bremen – Geburtsjahr 1885, Bd. 03 L-R, entry for Johann Nuckel, citing Staatsarchiv Bremen.
  3. “Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875 – 1939” (The Funerary Records of the City of Bremen, 1875-1939), book 1892, page 59; online database, Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen ( : accessed 30 Jan 2015).
  4. Ibid., book 1893, page 451.
  5. Ibid., book 1896, page 117.
  6. Ibid., book 1898, page 234.
  7. Ibid., book 1904, page 871.
  8. See generally Wikipedia (, “German Army (German Empire),” rev. 7 May 2016.
Posted in My family | 5 Comments

The concerns of 1855

So your ancestor was a mayor or a town council member. A local official of some kind around the middle of the 19th century.

Ever wonder just what it was that he — or the town or the city — was supposed to do? What the authority was? What its concerns were?

Or maybe it was just that you had an ancestor who lived in an area making the transition from rural to more urban… and you’re wondering what life was like… what people cared about.

NH4There is a place to look, you know… and, yes, you already know what The Legal Genealogist is going to say.

You need to look at the laws.

Because you’re likely going to find an awful lot of clues to the context of the times in those law books.

As I was getting ready to head off to Manchester, New Hampshire, for tomorrow’s spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists (are you joining us? have you sent your email off to the This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if NHSG can hold a space for you?), I came across the job description of an entire city in New Hampshire’s laws… and what a tale it tells.

It seems that on the 29th of June 1855 the town of Dover, New Hampshire, became the City of Dover, New Hampshire.1 Now that may seem pretty much like a distinction without a difference, but remember that New Hampshire has the town meeting form of government in many communities. Cities were and are allowed to govern through mayors and boards of aldermen or selectmen, rather than through the town meeting.2

So… what was the brand-new City of Dover — and its mayor and board of aldermen — supposed to do for its residents? You can read the entire list in the law and boy does it ever tell us a lot about the cares and concerns of the day. Because, the law provided, the city council had the authority to “make, establish, publish, alter, modify, amend, or repeal ordinances for the following purposes among others”:

“1. To restrain and prohibit all descriptions of gaming, and fraudulent devices, and to authorize the destruction and demolition of all instruments and devices used for the purpose of gaming.

“2. To regulate or prohibit the exhibitions of common show men and shows of every kind.

“3. To prevent riots, noises, disturbances or disorderly assemblages, and to restrain and suppress disorderly houses, and shops, and houses of ill-fame.

“4. To compel the owner or occupant of any cellar, tallow chandler’s shop,, soap factory, tannery, stable, barn, privy, sewer or other unwholesome or nauseous house or place, to cleanse, remove or abate the same.

“5. To direct the location and management of all slaughter houses, markets, steam mills, steam engines, black-smiths’ shops, and buildings or places for storing powder.

“6. To regulate the keeping and conveying of gun powder, and other combustible and dangerous materials, and the use of candles and lights in barns and stables.

“7. To prevent encumbering the streets or sidewalks with carriages, carts, lumber, fire-wood, stones, or any other thing what ever, and to prevent the obstruction of sidewalks and bridges, by persons collecting or gathering together, and to regulate the erection of buildings.

“8. To restrain and punish vagrants, mendicants, street beggars and common prostitutes.

“9. To prevent the running at large of dogs, and to authorize the destruction of the same when at large contrary to the ordinance.

“10. To regulate and restrain the rolling of hoops, playing at ball, or playing kites, or any other amusement or practice having a tendency to annoy persons passing in the streets and on the sidewalks, or to frighten teams and horses within said city.

“11. To regulate the ringing of bells, and regulate or prevent the blowing of horns and bugles, and crying goods and other things, therein.

“12. To require all persons to keep the snow, ice and dirt from the sidewalks in front of the premises owned or occupied by them, and to abate and remove nuisances.

“13. To regulate the burial of the dead.

“14. To regulate guaging, the place and manner of selling and weighing hay, packing, inspecting and branding beef and pork, and of selling and measuring wood, lime and coal ; to appoint a suitable person or persons to superintend and conduct the same.

“15. To regulate porters, cartmen and cartage, and hackney coaches, cabs and other carriages and their drivers.

“16. To prescribe the powers, authorities and duties of marshal, assistant marshals, police and watchmen of said city.

“17. To establish, regulate and make public pumps, wells and reservoirs, and to prevent the unnecessary waste of water.

“18. To regulate the grade of streets, and the grade and width of sidewalks ; relative to trees planted for shade, ornament, convenience or use, public or private, and to the fruit of such trees ; relative to sweeping and burning of chimneys ; relative to the bonds to be given by the several officers of said city ; relative to public lamps and lights ; relative to preserving said city from exposure to fire, and to prevent the use of any building, in the compact parts of the city for bakers’ shops, black-smiths’ shops, hatters’ shops, tallow chandlers’ shops, or for any other purposes, which, in the opinion of the city council, shall dangerously expose said city to injury or destruction by fire ; or the erection or use of any building in the compact parts of said city, for any noisy, noisome, or offensive occupation ; for making and regulating public squares and walks for preventing and punishing trespasses on, (or) injuries to public buildings, and in relation to cemeteries, public burial grounds, squares, commons, and other public grounds, and may make any other by-laws, regulations and ordinances, which may seem for the well being of said city, provided they be not repugnant to the constitution and laws of this State, which by-laws, regulations and ordinances, shall take effect and be in force from the time therein limited, without the sanction of any other authority whatever.”3

Now some of these things we might all have thought of — burying the dead, for example, would be a real concern to folks in the towns. But without reading the law, I for one might not have considered just how much of a nuisance those hoop-rollers or kite-fliers might have been in 1855 Dover.

Just reading the list of concerns the City was allowed to address tells me something about life at that time I might not otherwise have known.


  1. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855 (Concord, N.H. : Asa Handley, State Printer, 1855), 1590; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 May 2016).
  2. See generally Wikipedia (, “Town meeting: New Hampshire,” rev. 30 Mar 2016.
  3. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855, at 1595-1596.
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