The conference news

It’s an exciting time to be a genetic genealogist.

utah-dnaThe DNA world continues to develop and evolve and nowhere was that more evident than in Salt Lake City this past week as announcement after announcement came from the major players in the genetic genealogy community.

The venue was the massive combined conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies and RootsTech, and what was announced shows just how much DNA has moved into the genealogical mainstream in just a few short years.

Big news from AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA dominated the landscape… but even 23andMe dropped hints of good things to come.

Ancestry’s DNA Circles

First out of the gate was AncestryDNA with its announcements that, first, it will begin selling testing kits in Australia and Canada this year after its successful launch in the United Kingdom and, second, it will expand on DNA circles by a system of tree matching using DNA — even if you don’t have a tree.

Kendall Hulet, Ancestry vice president for product development in charge of AncestryDNA, and his AncestryDNA team demonstrated the DNA Circles expansion to a group of DNA bloggers during the week, and explained that the aim of the new system will be to connect an individual who has DNA-tested to others likely descended from the same ancestors — even if the individual’s tree doesn’t show the connection.

The current DNA Circles system takes persons who do share DNA and combines them into groups based on data from their public Ancestry family trees. If I match you and you match me and we both have — say — John Smith as a direct ancestor in our online trees, we show up on AncestryDNA with a shared ancestor hint. DNA Circles then takes our group and matches it to other groups that also have John Smith in their trees but who may match only me or only you. It’s a way to build out groups of cousins who can work together to try to determine if we really do all descend from the same John Smith.

The expanded DNA Circles will take the DNA testing data alone and suggest groups that an individual could belong to, even if that individual has an incomplete tree online — or no tree at all. The intent is to group people where there is enough common DNA to say that it is likely that everyone in that circle is related through a particular ancestor or ancestral couple.

In other words, it’s a first-ever effort to link people to a family tree using DNA data by itself. (Added note: First ever by the corporate world, of course. Individuals have been doing this the hard way from the beginning!)

Hulet and Ancestry DNA Senior Product Manager Kenny Freestone added that there was, of course, no guarantee that the suggested relationship would be correct; it was — like the shaky leaf hints and shared ancestor hints — a research suggestion instead. And, they noted, only about two in seven AncestryDNA users will see a new suggested circle pop up: in the demonstration, for example, there were no new suggested ancestors in my lines.

The rollout of the new Circle system won’t be for some weeks yet and it will come at the same time as a new visual presentation for all Ancestry data that will include biographical information on these new suggested ancestral links.

Family Tree-Findmypast Partnership

Next up was the announcement by Annelies Van Den Belt, Chief Executive Officer of DC Thomson Family History, of a partnership between its service Findmypast and Family Tree DNA.

The exact details of the partnership will be fleshed out in the weeks and months to come, but starting immediately, Findmypast will be offering a special rate on Family Tree DNA tests as part of their premium service for annual subscribers, Findmypast First.

According to Van Den Belt, this new partnership is “just the beginning of Findmypast’s journey into DNA testing” for their customers, and D. Joshua Taylor, Findmypast’s Director of Family History said the partnership came about in part based on the recognition that “DNA testing has the potential to help everyone discover more about their family history, and to make even more connections in their research.”

Particularly in light of Findmypast’s European roots and strong English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh presence, this partnership may pay off strongly for Americans who’ve tested with Family Tree DNA and are looking for their British Isles roots.

Family Tree DNA links to family trees

Last but hardly least of the announcements was the announcement by Family Tree DNA yesterday that it has partnered with FamilySearch to provide direct links from Family Tree DNA to the FamilySearch Family Tree — and from that tree back to Family Tree DNA.

James Brewster of Family Tree DNA demonstrated the coming-soon linking yesterday in a presentation to the Federation of Genealogical Societies, “Five Fun New Ways to Improve Your Genealogical Research.” And it looks like it’s going to be terrific once it launches.

Anyone logged in to FamilySearch who drops down the Search menu will soon see a new menu choice: DNA. Clicking on that will present a user with the chance to search the database to see how many people with a particular surname have done a DNA test and how many people are in the family tree of a person who has done a DNA test.

For example, a search result could report that there were 1045 people with that surname in the Family Tree DNA database, that the surname appears in 14 countries, that 245 DNA projects are researching that surname and that there are 13,218 people with that surname in the family trees of people in the Family Tree DNA database. And every search report page will offer a link that allows the user to order a DNA test right then and there.

Anyone logged in at Family Tree DNA will be able to click on a link and connect testing data from Family Tree DNA to the FamilySearch Family Tree database. Anyone looking at matches at Family Tree DNA will see a new icon showing that a match has a family tree at FamilySearch — with direct links to individual entries at the FamilySearch Family Tree that match.

Users of the FamilySearch Family Tree will be able to link their Family Tree data with their Family Tree DNA test results and entries for individuals in the FamilySearch Family Tree will have links to relevant testing projects at Family Tree DNA.

Users of Family Tree DNA will also be able to link their data to trees at and MyHeritage.

There’s more to come

It’s clear from discussions with executives of all of the DNA testing companies that there’s more to come and soon. Family Tree DNA will have new groups and a global search capability. AncestryDNA will have a visual presentation of data that makes seeing connections easy. Even 23andMe — which had no announcements during the conference — made it clear that there are good things just around the corner.

Stay tuned.

It’s such an exciting time to be a genetic genealogist…

Posted in DNA | 11 Comments

The 1940 registration

The Legal Genealogist is up to her eyeballs in the frenzy of the last day of the combined FGS2015-RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City. But it’s Saturday… a day for my family here on the blog… and I can’t leave this space vacant.

So here’s a teaser.

Did you know we had aliens among us?

And — better yet — we not only had aliens among us, they left records???

Take a gander at these two pages of an AR-2 form from the Alien Registration of 1940. And we’ll talk about these forms — and about the woman recorded in these forms, Martha Benschura — down the road. (And if you’re here in Salt Lake City, come join me at 4 p.m. when I’ll be speaking about Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien.)


Page 1, AR2 form, Martha Benschura


Page 2, AR2 form, Martha Benschura

Posted in My family | 7 Comments

Let’s move it

Here in Salt Lake City, where the Federation of Genealogical Societies is holding its 2015 conference side-by-side with RootsTech, the word came yesterday:

The digitization of the War of 1812 pensions — a major initiative of FGS with support from and many other supporting partners particularly from local and state genealogical societies — is halfway home.


This is a massive effort, trying to digitize all of the War of 1812 pension records held by the National Archives. These records, documenting more than 180,000 pension applications for War of 1812 soldiers and their families, are among the most heavily requested documents at the National Archives and, because of their use, their age and their fragile nature, they are at serious risk. So they really need to be digitized to protect them forever.

The campaign to get them digitized is called “Preserve The Pensions” and, overall, the price tag to digitize all of the files and put them online where they can be accessed free is going to run into the millions of dollars.

And our community has brought that effort halfway home. The money has been raised to get one half of the records digitized — leaving just one half to go.

Which, of course, means we can’t quit now. We have to keep moving to get every last one of these pages of records done.

Friend and colleague Michael Hall of FamilySearch was thinking the same thing this week. Michael is a staunch supporter of the “Preserve The Pensions” campaign who hand-crafted miniature War of 1812 figurines and has sold them to raise funds for the pensions. But Michael has run out of figurines to sell.

So… he thought … what if he did something else? What if he said he would run, bike or walk 1812 miles in the next 12 months? Would anybody sponsor that?

And The Legal Genealogist couldn’t turn down that challenge. “Sure,” I said, “my readers and I will.”

How about it? Can we raise enough to put a dollar on the table for every mile Michael runs, bikes or walks? How about five dollars for every mile? Can we make it ten dollars for every mile?

If we can raise $1812, with matching from, that will digitize 8,053 pages. If we can raise $9,060 (five dollars a mile), we can pay for more than 40,000 pages. And if we can raise $18,120 ($10 a mile), we can pay for more than 80,000 pages.

So… come on along with Michael and The Legal Genealogist. Let’s move this campaign down the road to completion. Remember, every dollar you contribute is matched by and becomes two dollars — and we’re going to need all the dollars we can get to bring this project all the way home. Every dollar contributed means two pages of a pension file can be digitized — and with matching funds from, that becomes four pages saved.

Want in? You can use PayPal to contribute. The email account to use — and every penny will be accounted for and transferred regularly to Preserve the Pensions — is legalgenealogist (at)

Let’s move it. And bring the pensions into the digital world, free for us all to use, forever.

Besides… Michael needs the exercise.

Posted in General | 3 Comments

The conference lament

One really good thing about having both the Federation of Genealogical Societies 2015 Conference and RootsTech both going on side by side here in Salt Lake City this week is having lots of choices of sessions to attend.

FGS2015And one really bad thing about having both the Federation of Genealogical Societies 2015 Conference and RootsTech both going on side by side here in Salt Lake City this week is having lots of choices of sessions to attend.

Too many choices! And like everybody else The Legal Genealogist is lamenting the fact that there’s no way to be in two (or three or four) places at one time to take in all the sessions.

Even worse, of course, is the lament of all those who can’t be here in Salt Lake City: yes, there are some RootsTech sessions being livestreamed starting today (see here), but none of the FGS sessions are going out live — and there are just so many wonderful FGS sessions!

Now you can sit there and continue to lament… or you can pony up a ridiculously small amount of money per session and get a package of audio-recordings of more than 50 of the best sessions FGS has to offer.

You can get them on CD. You can get them on a flash drive. And you can access them online as well. The price tag: $249 for all of the recorded sessions… a grand total of less than $4.90 each. Note that the $249 price is a short-term price. After the conference, it’ll go up to $349 — so you don’t want to wait.

The link to place your order from Fleetwood Onsite, the recording company used by FGS, for the complete set of 2015 sessions is here.

So… if you sport for this, what will you get?

Here are just a few of the sessions already recorded or to be recorded before the conference ends on Saturday:

Cyndi Ingle
W-109 Find the Silver Lining In the Cloud
W-125 Tips for a Robust Society Web Site
T-222 Go West, Young Man: Online Resources for the Western United States

Thomas W. Jones
T-215 Problem Solving with Probate
F-304 New Standards or Old? Guidelines for Effective Research and Family Histories
F-314 Writing a Prize-Winning Family History

J. Mark Lowe
W-121 7 Sure Fire Ways to Involve Elroy Jetson (& others) in Your Genealogical Society
F-321 Finding the Migration Record and Stories of the Dust Bowl Disaster and Western Movement
S-402 Comparing Records With Vintage Tools and High Tech Resources

Judy G. Russell
W-116 The Ethical Genealogist
F-301 Gentlemen Judges: The Justices of the Peace
S-416 Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien

Craig R. Scott
T-204 Researching Your War of 1812 Ancestor
T-212 Civil War Medical Records
F-319 The Compiled Military Service Record

Paula Stuart-Warren
W-110 Your Society Can’t Afford To Do a Seminar? Here’s How!
T-218 The War Ended But Not The Records!
F-316 Railroads Beyond the Mississippi: History and Records

D. Joshua Taylor
W-108 New Kid on the Block: Embracing Your Society’s New Volunteers
W-128 Tradition and Technology: Finding Your Society’s Balance
T-208 Bridging the Gap: Tracing Families in the United States Between 1780 and 1830

And these are just some of the sessions you can get! There are sessions about specific record types, genealogical methodologies, technological aids, using DNA in genealogical research and so much more. For those thinking about pursuing certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, Elissa Scalise Powell and I will be presenting session F-312, Certification: Measuring Yourself Against Standards.

You can order any individual recording for $12, and the links to order those will appear on the Fleetwood website page for FGS 2015 as the recordings are available.

But all of them? All … for $249?

Talk about a deal…

And you don’t have to be in two places at one time.

Or even in Salt Lake City.

Posted in General | 6 Comments

Heading down the stream

One of the nice things about RootsTech is that some of the session are livestreamed: shown in real time, live, free, to anyone who cares to sit in.

RT2015No, it’s not the same thing as being here in Salt Lake City. Nothing can compare to that.

Being here means, among other things, being with thousands of other people who share our joy in researching our families and who don’t roll their eyes when we start talking about our latest find on microfilm.

Being here means an exhibit hall so big you couldn’t see everything if you had three weeks, much less three days.

Being here means getting two for one in terms of genealogical education because the Federation of Genealogical Societies 2015 conference is going on at the same time and attendees can go to both for a small additional fee.

But it’s the next best thing for those who can’t be here, and here’s what’s being offered (all times are Mountain Standard Time):


Time Class Title Speaker
8:30-10:00 a.m. Thursday General Session Dennis Brimhall, Tan Le, Mike Mallin
11:00 a.m.-noon 30 Pieces of Tech I Can’t Live Without D. Joshua Taylor
1:30-2:30 p.m. You’ve Mastered the Census and Basic Search, What Next? Karen Auman
3:00-4:00 What’s New at FamilySearch Devin Ashby
4:30-5:30 Getting Started in Genetic Genealogy Diahan Southard


Time Class Title Speaker
10:30-11:30 a.m. Innovator Summit Challenge Event RootsTech
1:00-2:00 p.m. Building a Genealogy Research Toolbox Thomas MacEntee
2:30-3:30 p.m. Bring Your Ancestor Back to the Future Anne Leishman
4:00-5:00 p.m. The Write Stuff. Leaving a Recorded Legacy: Personal Histories, Journals, Diaries, and Letters Valerie Elkins


Time Class Title Speaker
8:30-10:00 a.m. Saturday General Session Donny Osmond, A.J. Jacobs
10:30-11:30 a.m. Finding the Living among the Dead: Using the Internet to Find Your Living Cousins Amy Archibald
1:00-2:00 p.m. Family History on the Go Using Phones and Tablet Apps Crystal Beutler
2:30-3:30 p.m. Personal History Triage: How to Tell the Best Ten Stories of Your Life Alison Taylor
4:00-5:00 p.m. Finding Your Family on Peter Drinkwater

So head on over to the RootsTech website for the livestreamed sessions. The link to join in the fun will be there when livestreaming starts, and the schedule is there now.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

RootsTech and FGS starting tomorrow


Can you believe it?

The massive, blow-your-mind-sized FGS-RootsTech conference kicks off tomorrow in Salt Lake City.

As The Legal Genealogist noted yesterday, any national conference is enough to make a genealogist feel like a kid in a candy store.

And with both the Federation of Genealogical Societies 2015 Conference and RootsTech starting tomorrow, all I can say is… wow.


There’s just so much to choose from… and you don’t want to miss a thing. Everything from the law and ethics, and we covered that yesterday, to my second-favorite topic, DNA.

And to help you make sure you don’t miss any of those don’t-miss DNA sessions, here’s what’s going to be available to choose from (with updates in red so you don’t miss them — and apologies to my friend CeCe Moore!).

Wednesday, February 11

2:45 p.m., FGS-W-122
Bringing Your Society Into the 21st Century with a DNA Interest Group
by CeCe Moore
Genealogy societies benefit by attracting new and younger members. Creating a DNA Interest Group (DIG) is one successful way of doing so.

Thursday, February 12

1:30 p.m., RT-1759
Genetic Genealogy: The Birth of the DNA Revolution
by Bennett Greenspan
This presentation describes how my personal quest to solve family genealogical mysteries led to discoveries that sparked the genetic genealogy revolution. I’ll discuss how various forms of DNA testing work for genealogy and what the future holds for the field.

3:00 p.m., RT-1460
Exploring Family Stories with DNA from PBS’ Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
by CeCe Moore
Genetic genealogy has been extensively utilized to explore the family stories of the guests on season two of Finding Your Roots, but much of that research never makes it to the screen. Get a behind-the-scenes look into the techniques used.

4:30 p.m., GS1406
Getting Started in Genetic Genealogy
by Diahan Southard
It is all the rage, this DNA testing for genealogy. But what can it tell you? Even more importantly, what CAN’T it tell you? Learn the basics of DNA testing and, walk away with confidence in this area of research.

Friday, February 13

10:30, RT1517
Using 23andMe’s Ancestry and Genealogy Tools to Learn about Family History
by Joanna Mountain
We will focus on using 23andMe’s Genetic Genealogy tools to answer questions and make discoveries about your family history. You will learn how how you are related to DNA relatives based on shared DNA segments inherited from common ancestors.

2:30 p.m. RT2263
by Kenny Freestone
Join experts from AncestryDNA to learn how the latest improvements in matching and the power behind DNA Circles (recently released in beta) can help your research. Find unique ways to use your DNA results and pick up where records leave off.

4:00 p.m., FGS-F-323
Genetic Genealogy Standards
by CeCe Moore
Under the guidance of Blaine Bettinger and CeCe Moore, a committee has developed standards for the use of genetic genealogy by the genealogy community. This presentation will review those standards.

Saturday, February 14

10:30 a.m., FGS-S-403
Determining Kinship with DNA
Angie Bush
DNA can confirm, refute, or provide new avenues of research. We will explore case studies showing the application of DNA testing as part of the GPS in establishing kinship and identity. This session will be recorded.

11:30 a.m., APG Luncheon
DNA Discoveries: Hidden African Ancestry and Jefferson’s Blood
by CeCe Moore

1:00 p.m., FGS-S-409
The Power of DNA: Introduction to Genetic Genealogy
by CeCe Moore
Understanding the basics of the four types of DNA and three types of genetic genealogy tests is essential to successfully applying genetic genealogy to further your research.

2:30 p.m., FGS-S-414/RT1496
Spit Please! A DNA Case Study
A.C. Ivory
This case study shows how amazing DNA testing can be. Through DNA my mother finally proved who her biological father was. This case study shows how using DNA and conventional research can break down brick walls and family myths and legends.

4:00 p.m., FGS-S-419/RT 1662
5 Fun New Ways to Improve Your Genealogical Research
by James Brewster
This presentation will teach people how new features FTDNA launched (or will launch) in 2014 will help their genealogical research. Also a sneak preview of what’s in store for the future at Family Tree DNA.


If the session says RT, it’s a RootsTech session and you need a RootsTech pass. If it says FGS, you need an FGS pass. And if you got one of those passes and now want the other one too, it’s just $39 as an add-on. If the session says GS, you can attend with the low-cost Getting Started pass.

Hope to see you there!

Posted in General | 3 Comments

FGS and RootsTech this week

Any national conference is enough to make a genealogist feel like a kid in a candy store.

There’s just so much to choose from… and you don’t want to miss a thing.

It’s always an overwhelming task to try to figure out what sessions to listen to, where to go.

And this week the word “overwhelming” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Because two national conferences are going on, side by side, at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.


The Federation of Genealogical Societies 2015 conference begins Wednesday with its general session on “Successfully Embracing the Future.” RootsTech 2015 kicks off the same day with its Innovator Summit.

It’s going to be big. It’s going to be noisy. It’s going to be so much fun.

But just so you won’t miss anything, here’s The Legal Genealogist‘s list of presentations that focus on law, ethics and related topics. Not that it’s a special interest of mine or anything…

Wednesday, February 11

1:30 p.m., FGS-W-116
The Ethical Genealogist
by Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL
Handling family secrets, tales of living people, crediting others’ work: learning how to deal with the ethical challenges of family history in the 21st century. (Recorded)

Thursday, February 12

11:00 a.m., RT-2280
How Old Did He Have to Be…?
by Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL
Is this man John the father or John the son? Knowing a person’s age is often the key to distinguishing between two same-name people. But if no record gives a birthdate, the law may tell us how old he was.

1:30 p.m., RT-1290
Accessing England’s Probate Records and Indexes Online
by Apryl Cox
Probate records are an incredible source for linking family members together. Indexes for many of England’s courts, and some probate records, are online. You will learn how to determine which courts to search and how to find their indexes online.

1:30 p.m., RT-1816
Infamy in the Family: Online Tools to Help Identify Family Members of Ill Repute
by B. Douglas Conley
Disreputable professions and unpopular personages, such as murderers, prostitutes, British loyalists, and slave overseers, can appear in family trees and hinder accurate research due to family embarrassment. Learn online resources to transform the infamous into the understood without hiding truth.

3:00 p.m., FGS-T-215
Problem Solving with Probate
by Thomas Jones PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS
A wealth of records are created to distribute property after a death. Attendees will learn how to use probate records to identify people, trace, them, and flesh out their lives. (Recorded.)

3:00 p.m., RT-2281
Making a Federal Case Out of It
by Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL
Even genealogists who understand court records often overlook the wealth of detail in the records of the federal courts. From bankruptcies to copyrights to patents to cases in admiralty jurisdiction and more, federal court records merit a close look.

4:30 p.m., RT1670
The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk: How Curiosity and Persistence Uncover Buried Secrets
by Tammy Hepps
After uncovering ancestors imprisoned for selling margarine as butter, I had to expand my research skills dramatically to unravel the mystery. Learn how you, too, armed with your natural curiosity and persistence, can connect discoveries into amazing results.

4:30 p.m., FGS-T-221
Access to Vital Records is Under Attack! How Can You Help?
by Jan Meisels Allen, Jan Alpert FNGS, Frederick E. Moss JD, LLM
Sponsored by Records Preservation Access Committee
Vital records are being threatened at both the state and federal level. Learn the status of pending legislation and how you can influence the outcome. (Recorded.)

Friday, February 13

10:30 a.m., F-301
Gentlemen Judges: The Justices of the Peace
by Judy G. Russell JD, CG, CGL
Landowners, but legal laymen, America’s early justices of the peace, served up ground-level justice and local governance, creating records unparalleled for genealogists. (Recorded.)

10:30 a.m., GS1205
Right or Wrong: 6 Things You Need to Know about Picture Sharing Online
Maureen Taylor
Upload, post, and share. Watch for pitfalls of permissions, resolution, and reuse. This seminar covers resolution rules, the dangers of right click copying, the ethics and safety of picture sharing, popular photo sharing platforms, and citing your photos.

1:00 p.m., FGS-F-313
Scandals in the Family
by Audrey Collins
Records in The National Archives (UK) and elsewhere reveal some scandalous details about the private lives of two English families, the Boyntons and the Keelings.

4:00 p.m., FGS-F-320
Using Tax Records for Genealogical Problem Solving
Michael Lacopo, DVM
Tax records are seldom utilized and are often dismissed as boring and insignificant. They can solve MANY genealogical dilemmas and should be a primary source to utilize. (Recorded.)

4:00 p.m., FGS-F-323
Genetic Genealogy Standards
by CeCe Moore
Under the guidance of Blaine Bettinger and CeCe Moore, a committee has developed standards for the use of genetic genealogy by the genealogy community. This presentation will review those standards. (Ethics.)

4:00 p.m., RT1922
Genealogists, Technologists, Privacy Advocates: We REALLY Need to Talk!
by James Dempsey, Frederick Moss, JD, LL.M.
As a society, we must balance competing interests for access to public records with our individual personal privacy interests. Technology presents both challenges and possible contributions to finding enduring solutions in this effort to strike an appropriate balance.

Saturday, February 14

2:30 p.m., RT1400
Digital Library on American Slavery: Accessing Pre-Emancipation Court Petitions Concerning Enslaved Individuals, Their Families and Environment
by Janis Forte
This lecture demonstrates how to conduct an exhaustive search using this online database of 1790 through 1867 southern court and legislative petitions. These petitions describe the lives and issues of free people of color and those enslaved. Participants develop skill building and learn to examine the companion research guide.

4:00 p.m., FGS-S-416
Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien
by Judy G. Russell JD, CG, CGL
Not all our ancestors were naturalized. The ones who didn’t suddenly became suspect when war divided their native countries from their new residences, creating the kinds of records genealogists love. (Recorded.)

4:00 p.m., FGS-S-417
How the Public Land Survey System Shaped Our Country
by Billie Fogarty M.Ed.
Ever noticed the patchwork quilt effect of the farms when flying over the Midwest? Discover why this is the case and how to decipher those legal descriptions. (Recorded.)

4:00 p.m., RT1479
Do I Own My Ancestors? Copyright, Attribution, Plagiarism, Sharing, and Claims to Research Ownership
by James Tanner
You will learn legal and ethical limits surrounding genealogical research, data, and online family trees defining exactly what you do and do not “own.” The focus is on copyright, attribution, plagiarism, and their relationship to the need for sharing data.


If the session says RT, it’s a RootsTech session and you need a RootsTech pass. If it says FGS, you need an FGS pass. And if you got one of those passes and now want the other one too, it’s just $39 as an add-on. If the session says GS, you can attend with the low-cost Getting Started pass.

(And tomorrow… I promise… the straight DNA sessions…)

Posted in General | 5 Comments

It’s a brave new world out there

Those genealogists who, like The Legal Genealogist, use DNA testing as part of our family history research often have to answer questions from our cousins about the way their DNA test results can be used.

3D Police With Gun And Nightstick Ordering To StopThe truth is, except in really extraordinary cases where the crime is very serious and the police have no clues at all, the chances that the police are going to turn to genealogy DNA databanks are pretty slim.

Why? Because if the police have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that you committed it, they can walk into any judge’s office in this country and get a search warrant that will let them pick you up, trot you down to the nearest medical facility, and take whatever blood or saliva they want for a DNA sample and they’ll use their own lab, not 23andMe or AncestryDNA, to do the tests they want.1

And if the police don’t want you to know they’re on to you, they can sneak a DNA sample. They could watch you smoke at a bar and collect the cigarette butts when you leave. They could set up a phony job interview and give you a bottle of water to drink or a piece of cake to eat (in one case they gave the suspect a bottle of water AND a piece of cake and got DNA samples from the bottle and the fork). They could even send you something in the mail and get a DNA sample from the saliva you use on the flap of the envelope when you return that “send this in to WIN!” form.2

They can even have you flat out refuse to take a DNA test of any kind … and test your DNA anyway. Don’t believe me? Then you need to know about the Raynor case.

Now before I go into the facts, I need to say that this case presents all the tensions that can possibly exist in a criminal case. On one hand, the Constitutional rights of all people to privacy and to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. On the other hand, the rights of all people to know that the guilty will be found, prosecuted and put where they can’t hurt anyone again. It’s a tough balance, and one that may end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case began in the early morning hours of a day in April 2006, when a woman in Maryland abruptly awoke to terror. A pillow pressed to her face. An assailant whose face she never saw. Rape. Repeated rape.

After the assailant fled, she ran to a neighbor’s home and reported the assault to police. The rapist, she told police, was white, had a medium build and had an odd metallic body odor. And, at the scene of the crime, DNA samples were collected.

But the samples didn’t match anybody. Not in any police database. Not any of the people the victim told police could have been involved. During more than two years after the attack, “the police obtained consensual DNA samples from approximately 20 individuals with possible connections to the 2006 rape, including several of the victim’s neighbors. None of those DNA samples matched the DNA collected from the victim’s home on the day of the rape.”3

Then in 2008 the victim gave the police one more name. The name of Glenn Raynor. He’d gone to school with the victim, was the prior owner of the home where the victim lived, he had the same basic build.

The police asked Raynor to come in for questioning. During a 30-minute interview at the stationhouse, they asked him for a DNA sample. He said no. He was not arrested and was allowed to leave the police station. But after he left the police swabbed down the chair where he’d been sitting, sent the swabs off for DNA analysis — and got a hit. They then used that evidence as the basis to ask for a search warrant and get a full DNA sample; testing proved it was a match.

Raynor moved to suppress the evidence, saying — in effect — human beings can’t move around in public without leaving DNA behind, and allowing the police to test it without a warrant is unconstitutional. The State argued that DNA when used solely for identification purposes wasn’t any different from fingerprints, and police don’t need a warrant to lift fingerprints from any public place.

Late last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals — the highest court in Maryland — came down on the side of the State in a 4-3 split of that seven-member court.

Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera agreed with the State’s argument that

(Raynor) did not possess an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the information the police analyzed because they tested only 13 junk loci, which, unlike other regions of the DNA strand, do not disclose the intimate genetic information … Instead, those loci reveal only information related to a person’s identity. In this regard, … law enforcement’s testing of the DNA evidence in this case is indistinguishable from its testing of fingerprints left unknowingly upon surfaces in public places, which does not implicate the protections of the Fourth Amendment.4

The Court’s reference to the 13 loci is to the CODIS markers, the ones used by the Congressionally-authorized database supervised by the FBI that holds and reviews DNA profiles from crime scenes and arrestees and convicts.

The four members of the Court noted that the public should be aware that DNA can be left around whenever folks are out in public and that, even if people don’t know that, “the fact that one has not knowingly exposed to the public certain evidence does not, by itself, demonstrate a reasonable expectation of privacy in that evidence.”5 It wasn’t a search or a seizure, they said, because the police “did not seize genetic material from (Raynor), nor in any way search him for it, but rather, collected it from an object on which the material had been left.”6

The dissenting judges in the case, in an opinion written by Judge Sally D. Adkins, strongly disagreed. Raynor’s interest in his DNA, they concluded, “is immensely personal and private, and deserves the staunchest protection under the Fourth Amendment. DNA has the potential to reveal enormous amounts of private information about a person. With today’s technology, scientists have the power to discern genetic traits, behavioral tendencies, propensity to suffer disease or defects, other private medical information, and possibly more.”7

The dissent warned that:

The Majority’s approval of such police procedure means, in essence, that a person desiring to keep her DNA profile private, must conduct her public affairs in a hermetically-sealed hazmat suit. Moreover, the Majority opinion will likely have the consequence that many people will be reluctant to go to the police station to voluntarily provide information about crimes for fear that they, too, will be added to the (police) database.8

And, the dissent added in a footnote, the majority ruling had implication for exercising routine rights of citizenship: “The Majority’s holding means that a person can no longer vote, participate in a jury, or obtain a driver’s license, without opening up his genetic material for state collection and codification.”9

A petition has been filed asking the United States Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the Maryland court’s ruling.[10. See Byron Warnken, “Raynor v. Maryland – An Update and the Cert Petition,” Warnken LLC Attorneys at Law blog, posted 22 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 7 Feb 2015). Whether the Court will choose to get involved is anybody’s guess.

So when that cousin asks you, once again, whether his genetic genealogy test can be used by the police, remind him, once again, that the police don’t particularly want it — and they don’t need it.

First, the tests we take for genealogy aren’t all that useful to the police. Our tests tell us how we are like other people — other family members who share common ancestors with us. The CODIS markers focus on parts of the DNA that make us unlike other people and set us apart as individuals.

And, second, if the police want our DNA, they will get it.

Even if we say no.

It’s a brave new world out there…


  1. See, for example, United States v. Allen, 631 F.3d 164, 167-168 (4th Cir. 2011) (“Baltimore and federal authorities sought and obtained … the … warrant (that) authorized the collection of Allen’s DNA”).
  2. The Office of the Denver District Attorney has the facts of some of these cases online. “Fourth Amendment DNA Cases,” DenverDA ( : accessed 7 Feb 2015).
  3. Raynor v. State, 440 Md. 71, 76 (2014).
  4. Raynor v. State, 440 Md. at 85.
  5. Ibid. at 94-95.
  6. Ibid. at 96.
  7. Ibid. at 108.
  8. Ibid. at 108-109.
  9. Ibid. at 108 n.14.
Posted in Court Cases, DNA | 28 Comments

Memories of Ma Bell

These days, it seems, there is nowhere you can go and be free from its demands.

Nowhere that it won’t insist on your attention.

Nowhere that it won’t interrupt anything else you might have had planned.

And nothing — nothing at all — that will stop the telemarketers from making it into what seems at time to be the instrument of the devil.

openclipart-user-andinuryadinThe telephone is everywhere these days. Including, for many of us, in a pocket or a purse every waking minute of every waking day … and on the bedstand next to us when we sleep.

Omnipresent. Ubiquitous. Annoying.

But it was not always so, was it?

A research trip to Chicago’s Newberry Library last year reminded me that home telephones were still rarities in the 1930s and 1940s.1 I found a listing for a delicatessen my paternal grandparents briefly owned in the 1930s2… but not even a single home telephone for any of my Chicago relatives.

And there was a reason why news from the war front was sent by telegram — it was the only quick way to get the news to many American homes. As late as January 1948, my mother used the telegraph system to ask her cousin Fred Gottlieb to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, and he replied the same way. (I loved his answer, by the way, when I found it in my mother’s papers after her death: “Am getting married January 22nd but will arrange honeymoon so I can ditch her long enuf to escort you. Fred.”3)

So there was a time when being able to communicate by voice — communicate, not get harangued by sales pitches — was a big deal. First patented in the United States in 1876, the telephone spread to nearly 49,000 users by 1880, 600,000 by 1900, 2.2 million by 1905, 5.8 million by 1910. But it was the post-war prosperity that brought the telephone into most homes — 30 million as of 1948, 80 million by the 1960s, 175 million by 1980.4

And when it finally arrived in our homes, the telephone was a family gamechanger for most of us, wasn’t it? Remember back, all those years ago,5 when the telephone was something that only existed in one room of the house — if it was there at all — and, when it rang, all the people in the house hoped it would be for them?

When it was amazing that good news — and bad news — traveled so fast:

• My sister and I didn’t have to wait until our father came home to tell us that we had a brand-new younger sibling when the brother just younger than I am was born; he telephoned the neighbor who was caring for us, and she came out and told us.

• But I also didn’t have to wait when I was a 16-year-old college freshman, away from home on my own for the first time, and it was the telephone that let me know that my Uncle Barrett had lost his fight with a brain tumor.

When sometimes you had to listen to the ring to know if it was for someone at your house at all? Many homes in rural and suburban areas hooked into what were called party lines — shared or group telephone subscriptions. In 1950, 75% of residential customers were on party lines; that dropped to 27% by 1965. And “telephones on party lines would ring with a particular pattern unique to a household, so the customer would only answer the phone that rang with ‘their’ ring.”6

And that brings to mind what is, to me, my absolute favorite family telephone story.

It seems that back a kazillion years ago, when my mother’s parents were first married, they lived for a time with my grandfather’s older sister Addie (Cottrell) Harris and her family in Wichita Falls, Texas.

My grandfather Clay, born in April 1898,7 was the youngest of 10 known siblings; Addie, born in March 1881,8 was 17 years his senior. By the time my grandparents married at the grand old age of 18, Addie already had teenaged children, including a son who was only a little younger than my grandparents.

Sam Walter Harris, born in 1902,9 was always called Pete. And Pete fell madly in love with his 18-year-old aunt by marriage, Opal.

As the story goes, he made a right nuisance of himself in what everyone thought was a case of puppy love. The following-her-around. The deep sighs. The calf eyes. And he was heartbroken when Clay and Opal prepared to move to Oklahoma.

So he extracted a promise from Opal: when Clay died, he got her to promise, she would then marry Pete.

The years rolled on for the Cottrells and the Harrises. Pete went off to serve in World War II, lived and worked in St. Louis after the war, and went home to Texas to live with and care for his mother.10

And he never married. He would often remind my grandmother of her promise and she would often, with a smile, remind him that Clay wasn’t dead yet.

My grandparents lived in Oklahoma,11 in Texas,12 finally in Virginia, where they lived on a farm owned by their oldest son, my uncle Billy.13

Now for the longest time there was no telephone at the farm. If we needed to make a call, we would drive — or often walk — to the home of a neighbor family named Holland or to the general store that gave the post office its name: Kents Store, Virginia.

And then came the day in the 1960s when, finally, a phone was installed. A party line, to be sure, but instant communication! The ability to reach out to the world at large — and for the world to reach in!

And then came that magical moment when that phone rang for the very first time. Everyone froze, listening to the rings. Would it be…? Could it be…? Would it be for someone at the farm?

And it was. My grandmother reached out and picked up the receiver. In her oh-so-soft Texas drawl, she said hello.

And a scratchy voice on the other end spoke up.

It was Pete.

And the first words heard on that marvelous device?

“Opal, isn’t that son of a (bleep) dead yet?”

Family stories about the telephone.

We all have ‘em.

What’s yours?

Image courtesy of user andinuryadin

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “The delicatessen,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  2. Chicago Telephone Directory, Summer 1930 (Chicago: Illinois Bell Telephone Co., 1930), 474, entry for Geissler, Hugo; microfilm, Dewberry Library, Chicago.
  3. Western Union telegram, Fred Gottlieb to Hazel Cottrell, 14 Jan 1948; privately held by author.
  4. 1870s-1940s-Telephone,” Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast, Elon University School of Communications ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  5. Okay, “all those years ago” for those of us whose hair is turning grey, okay?
  6. Party Lines,” AT&T Tech Channel, AT&T Archives ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  7. Virginia Department of Health, death certif. no. 70-026728, Clay Rex Cottrell, 21 Sep 1970; Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  8. Texas Department of Health, death certif. no. 38558 (1974), Addie Lee Harris, 6 May 1974; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  9. Texas Department of Health, death certif. no. 60782 (1971), Sam Walter Harris, 5 Aug 1971; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  10. “Early days recalled by Iowa Park pioneer,” likely from Wichita Falls (Texas) Daily Times, undated clipping, circa 1970; digital image of the original held by a great granddaughter, Odessa, Texas. The date was calculated by reference to the age of the subject, Addie Cottrell Harris, then said to be 89, who was born in 1881.
  11. 1920 U.S. census, Tillman County, Oklahoma, Haskell Twp., population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 170, p. 256(B)(stamped), dwelling/family 227, C.R. “Cottorell” household; digital image, ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 1488.
  12. 1930 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 247A (stamped), dwelling 287, family 317, Clay R. Cottrell; digital image, ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2376. Also, 1940 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 165-3A, page (illegible)(B) (stamped), sheet 7(B), household 161, C R Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Sep 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4105
  13. See Judy G. Russell, “End of an era,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
Posted in My family | 33 Comments

Different degrees of violence

In the Mississippi Territory, in 1817, a jury of 12 men tried and true returned a verdict of not guilty against Nathaniel Christmas.

ForceThe court minutes reflect that the “Jurors return their verdict that the Defendant Nathl Christmas is not guilty in manner and form as charged in the … Declaration.”1

And the “manner and form as charged in the … Declaration”?

Trespass vi et armis.


Does it make you feel any better that The Legal Genealogist had to look that up too? I mean, seriously, I went to law school in the 20th century. They didn’t teach legal Latin then!

So off to Black’s Law Dictionary we go, and there we learn that vi et armis is Latin for “with force and arms.”2

Okay! Now we get it, right?

Um… what’s meant by “force and arms”?

It’s a “phrase used in declarations of trespass and in indictments, but now unnecessary in declarations, to denote that the act complained of was done with violence.”3 And violence, we’re told, is “synonymous with ‘physical force.’”4 And arms? That’s “(a)nything that a man wears for his defense, or takes in his hands, or uses in his anger, to cast at or strike at another.”5

So now we’re all clear, right?

Sure we are.

Until we realize that, well, there are different degrees of force, and arms when used in “force and arms” doesn’t always mean a gun or a knife or a club, and exactly what’s meant in a court document like this is going to vary with the circumstances.

Force, we learn, means “unlawful violence. It is either simple, as entering upon another’s possession, without doing any other unlawful act; compound, when some other violence is committed, which of itself alone is criminal; or implied, as in every trespass, rescous, or disseisin.”6

And in addition to “force and arms,” there’s “force and fear” — which is the kind of undue influence that lets you out of a contract if you can prove you wouldn’t have signed it otherwise.7

Oy. It couldn’t be easy, could it?

So let’s break down our Mississippi case.

Trespass, the kind of case we’re dealing with here, includes “(a)ny misfeasance or act of one man whereby another is injuriously treated or damnified. An injury or misfeasance to the person, property, or rights of another person, done with force and violence, either actual or implied in law. In the strictest sense, an entry on another’s ground, without a lawful authority, and doing some damage.”8

In order words, something as basic as, say, riding a horse into another person’s garden and damaging the crops is a trespass.

And by adding the “vi et armis” part, we’re saying there were weapons involved, right? So this is a criminal case?

No. By definition, trespass vi et armis was “a common-law action for damages for any injury committed by the defendant with direct and immediate force or violence against the plaintiff or his property.”9 Tearing down a fence on your neighbor’s property would be a trespass vi et armis. Going onto his land and cutting down a tree. Riding down those plants in the garden.

Moreover, an action for damages is always a civil case. Person A suing person B for money. You don’t collect damages in a criminal case.

And just to emphasize that, the law actually has another category of force, force “with a strong hand,” words that “imply a degree of criminal force, whereas the words vi et armis (‘with force and arms’) are mere formal words in the action of trespass, and the plaintiff is not bound to prove any force. The statutes relating to forcible entries use the words ‘with a strong hand’ as describing that degree of force which makes an entry or detainer of lands criminal.”10

Trespass vi et armis. A — pardon the phrase — garden variety civil suit for property damage.


  1. Washington County, Mississippi Territory, Superior Court Minutes A: 17 (1817); FHL microfilm 1752975.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1219, “vi et armis.”
  3. Ibid., 508, “force and arms.”
  4. Ibid., 1228, “violence.”
  5. Ibid., 88, “arms.”
  6. Ibid., 503, “force.”
  7. Ibid., “force and fear.”
  8. Ibid., 1187, “trespass.”
  9. Ibid., 1188, “trespass vi et armis.”
  10. Ibid., 1128, “strong hand.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 2 Comments