Thirteen years ago today.

It is, once again, September 11.

A different September 11th from that one, 13 years ago.

That September 11th was one of those glorious days we sometimes get in early September, with crystal-clear blue skies and a hint of crispness in the air.

Today, it is warm and humid, with a chance of rain and thunderstorms.

That September 11th was a day for looking forward.

Today, it is a day for looking back.

That September 11th was a day when more than 3,000 men, women and children were alive, healthy, strong.

Today, they are names on the walls.

In New York, they are inscribed in brass.

They begin with Gordon M. Aamoth, Jr.

They end with Igor Zukelman.

In Pennsylvania, they are chiseled into stone.

They begin with Christian Adams.

They end with Kristin Gould White.

At the Pentagon, they are in steel and granite.

They begin with Paul W. Ambrose.

They end with Yuguang Zheng.

They were Americans and British and Pakistanis and Dominicans and Indians — citizens of more than 90 countries. They were men, and women, and children. On that day, they were as old as 85 years. They were as young as two. Some were as yet unborn: eleven of the women were pregnant on that day.

And on that day, 13 years ago today, the light each of them represented in this world was snuffed out. Some died in an instant, vaporized by fireballs. Some died long agonizing terrifying minutes later, trapped in the smoke and the flames. Some died jumping from the upper floors of the Twin Towers. Or lost in the smoke-filled labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon. Or in a field in Pennsylvania.

Today, as last year and the year before and the year before, on each anniversary of that day, the names of those lost will be read aloud at remembrances in New York and Pennsylvania and northern Virginia. In New York, the readers will pause, as they have paused each year, for six moments of silence:

• At 8:46 a.m., the time when a plane piloted by murderous fanatics slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

• At 9:03 a.m., the time when a second plane piloted by even more murderers slammed into the South Tower.

• At 9:37 a.m., the time when a third plane crashed into the Pentagon’s west side.

• At 9:59 a.m., the time when the South Tower imploded and fell, raining debris and ash on the city.

• At 10:03 a.m., when yet a fourth plane crashed into a field in the Pennsylvania countryside.

• And at 10:29 a.m., the time when the North Tower fell.

And as the names are read, we who survived that day will weep.

For all that was lost.

For all that should have been.

For all who perished.

For the pain of all who loved them.

And we will remember.

We will not let those lives be forgotten.

So today I pause again to reflect. Only days after that day, in 2001, I stood in the wreckage of lower Manhattan. And I made a promise that September all those years ago. A solemn pledge that I would remember.

It is a pledge I have tried to keep, by writing and posting these 9/11 essays every year since 2001.1

And as in years gone by, it is time again now to remember. To open, once more, the film cannister into which I brushed some of the dust of Ground Zero. To touch that dust with my own hands. And, once again, to stand witness. To make sure that I do not forget. That we do not forget. That no-one forgets. That all those lives will never be forgotten.

To say, one more time, this year and every year, as long as I have life and breath, in words and images, NEVER FORGET.

Images: © Judy G. Russell.

  1. This post is cross-posted from my personal website. Earlier essays are there for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th anniversaries of 9/11.
Posted in General | 17 Comments

Upcoming on the road

Genealogical societies are busy places each and every fall, as the fall conference season gets underway.

Road TrippingAnd The Legal Genealogist is heading off into this fall conference season with an absolutely packed schedule.

From Chicago this weekend to Hudson County, New Jersey, in December, I’m looking forward to traveling around the United States, getting to see old friends and meet new ones, to share what I know and — the great joy of being a genealogical lecturer — learning from others about this shared interest of ours.

So… will I see you during one of this fall’s road trips?

Here’s the line-up:

13 September, Chicago Genealogical Society
Arlington Heights Memorial Library, information

“Don’t Forget the Ladies”: A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
The ABCs of DNA
Beyond X and Y: The Promise & Pitfalls of Autosomal DNA
Staying Out of Trouble – The Rights and Responsibilities of Today’s Genealogists

27 September, Dallas Genealogical Society
Dallas Public Library, information

From Blackstone to the Statutes at Large – How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists
“Don’t Forget the Ladies” – A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
Through the Golden Door: Immigration After the Civil War
The Ethical Genealogist

1 October, Legacy Family Tree, Webinar

The Fair Court: Records of Chancery Courts

3-5 October, Minnesota Genealogical Society, 7th Annual North Star Conference
Colonial Church, Edina, Minnesota, information

Facts, Photos, and Fair Use
“Don’t Forget the Ladies” – A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
From Blackstone to the Statutes at Large – How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists
Where There Is or Isn’t a Will

Also: 2 Oct., Normandale Community College, DNA Goes Genderless

9-11 October, BCG Lecture Series, Family History Library, Salt Lake City

Shootout at the Rhododendron Lodge: Reconstructing Life-Changing Events
From the White Lion to the Emancipation Proclamation – Slavery and the Law Before the Civil War

15 October, Board for Certification of Genealogists, webinar

Kinship Determination: From Generation to Generation

18 October, Tennessee Genealogical Society Annual Fall Seminar
The Pickering Center, Germantown, information

That First Trip to the Courthouse
From Blackstone to the Statutes at Large – How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists
Dowered or Bound Out: Records of Widows and Orphans
The ABCs of DNA

25 October, Genealogical Forum of Oregon
Milwaukie Elks Club, information

“Don’t Forget the Ladies”— A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
Polls, Personalty and Property—Making Sense of Tax Lists
How Old Did He Have To Be….?
Facts, Photos and Fair Use: Copyright Law for Genealogists

Also, 26 Oct., GFO, Portland, Workshop: Circumstantial Evidence

1 November, San Mateo County Genealogical Society
Menlo Park LDS Church, information, registration

Where There Is – Or Isn’t – A Will
The Fair Court – Records of Chancery Courts
Polls, Personalty and Property – Making Sense of Tax Lists
From Blackstone to the Statutes at Large – How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists

5 November, Leisure Village West (NJ) Genealogy Club

Cemeteries & Photos: Permission Required?

8 November, Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia (GRIVA)
Clover Hill High School, Midlothian, information

“Don’t Forget the Ladies”— A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
Where There Is – Or Isn’t – A Will
Facts, Photos and Fair Use: Copyright Law for Genealogists
Blackguards & Black Sheep: The Lighter Side of the Law

15 November, North Carolina Genealogical Society
Comfort Suites Raleigh Durham, information

From Blackstone to the Statutes at Large – How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists
“Don’t Forget the Ladies”— A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
The Ties that Bond
Staying Out of Trouble – The Rights and Responsibilities of Today’s Genealogists

18 November, Mt. Vernon Genealogical Society

“Don’t Forget the Ladies”— A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law

22 November, Genealogical Society of Bergen County
281 Campgaw Road, Mahwah, information

No Vitals? No Problem! Building a Family through Circumstantial Evidence
“Don’t Forget the Ladies”— A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law
Where There Is – or Isn’t – a Will
Rogues, Rascals and Rapscallions: The Family Black Sheep

3 December, NJ Chapter, APG

The Ethical Genealogist

6 December, Bucks County Genealogical Society

Dowered or Bound Out: Records of Widows and Orphans

9 December, Friends of NARA-Southeast Region, Webinar

“Inventing America – Records of the U.S. Patent Office”

13 December, Hudson County Genealogical Society

Building a Family through Circumstantial Evidence

18 December, Florida State Genealogical Society, Webinar

That First Trip to the Courthouse

Posted in General | 8 Comments

Well, okay, and me, too…

The Legal Genealogist is one of 150 genealogists from around the world whose names appear on the ballot of John Reid’s third annual contest for Rockstar Genealogists on his blog, Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections.

John defines a rockstar this way:

Rockstar genealogists are those who give “must attend” presentations at family history conferences or as webinars. Who, when you see a new family history article or publication by that person, makes it a must buy. Who you hang on their every word on a blog, podcast or newsgroup, or follow avidly on Facebook or Twitter?1

vote.2014Last year, I was honored beyond belief to come in third, in the bronze prize place, behind two of my mentors and friends, Elizabeth Shown Mils and Thomas W. Jones.2 Just being on the same page with those two is an honor — being in the winner’s circle with them was amazing.

This year, I’m honored to be nominated again, and… and… and…

I want you to vote for someone else.

Oh, you can vote for more than one someone, so please do go ahead and vote for me, too, if you’re so inclined.

But I’d like you to vote as well for someone from a list of people who write and speak only on genetic genealogy. (I write about DNA too, but only on Sundays.)

Here’s why.

My friend Roberta Estes, who is a genetic genealogist and one of the nominees, has offered to donate $250 to the Preserve the Pensions campaign if a genetic genealogist comes in anywhere in the winner’s circle.3

Now you all know how near and dear that cause is to my heart. It’s why I climbed out of bed at oh-dark-thirty at the FGS Conference in San Antonio in August to walk to the Alamo to raise funds. And since this $250 can be doubled once by contributing through a local society, then doubled again by matching funds from Ancestry, your votes here could bring in $1,000 to help digitize War of 1812 pension papers.

There’s no limit to the number of people you can vote for — John says he will break the voting into categories when the polls close Friday or Saturday — but you can only vote once. Once you leave the voting booth, you can’t go back to add someone or change your vote.

But there are some really great people to choose from — including some fabulous genetic genealogists. And if any one of them makes it into a winner’s circle, Roberta has to pony up! Here are some folks to think about:

• CeCe Moore (Your Genetic Genealogist)
• Tim Janzen (see his DNA and Mennonite genealogy links here)
• Blaine Bettinger (The Genetic Genealogist)
• Bennett Greenspan (president of Gene by Gene and founder of Family Tree DNA)
• Debbie Kennett (Cruwys News)
• Katherine Borges (director of ISOGG) and
• Roberta Estes herself (DNAeXplained).

If you’ve heard these folks speak, if you’ve read what they’ve written, and you’ve been impressed (and how could you not be?), please consider casting at least one of your votes accordingly.

Let’s make Roberta Estes pay up — and Preserve the Pensions!

Oh, yeah, and vote for me too, willya? And Elizabeth, and Tom, and…

The voting booth is accessed through John’s blog post here.



  1. John Reid, Rockstar Genealogists 2014: Who Do You Think They Are?, Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections, posted 1 Sep 2013 ( : accessed 8 Sep 2014).
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “The company you keep,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Sep 2013 ( : accessed 8 Sep 2014).
  3. See Roberta Estes, “Rockstar Genealogists – Sweetening the Pie,” DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy, posted 9 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 9 Sep 2014).
Posted in General | 15 Comments

Go directly to judgment

On Saturday, the 13th of October 1877, a Chicago newspaper reported on a number of court cases, including a couple that caught the eye of reader Linda Vert when she came across the notice.

VertThe first case, No. 68,821, was “A. Gridley & Son. vs. N.M. Jones and T.P. Barkalow. Confession of Judgment, $287.85.” And, right beneath that, No. 68,822, “Same vs. Wm. H. Vert. Confession of judgment, $955.90. Same attys.”1

Linda knew the case meant William H. Vert was going to end up paying A. Gridley & Son the sum of $955.90… but why? What exactly was a “confession of judgment”? And where would the records be?

Good questions! Particularly since the confession of judgment is a rare beast in individual consumer transactions these days, it’s not something most of us would have come across.

The Black’s Law Dictionary definition of a confession of judgment explains that it’s the “act of a debtor in permitting judgment to be entered against him by his creditor, for a stipulated sum, by a written statement to that effect or by warrant of attorney, without the institution of legal proceedings of any kind.”2

Another says it’s the “act of a debtor in permitting judgment to be entered against him by his creditor, for a stipulated sum, by a written statement to that effect or by warrant of attorney, without the institution of legal proceedings of any kind.”3

And a third contemporary definition is that it’s “a clause within a promissory note, allowing the creditor to, upon nonpayment by the borrower, get a court judgment for the amount owed and in some cases collect from the borrower’s assets, all without giving the borrower advance notice.”4

So… how does this work? And if it’s all to avoid litigation or legal proceedings, why is this still in court?

Now outlawed in most states in consumer transactions, the confession of judgment used to be a common part of a credit deal: the borrower or buyer on credit would sign a piece of paper as part of the original transaction that essentially said: “I owe you a specific amount of money. I have to pay it by a date certain. If I don’t pay it by that date, this paper can be submitted to a court as my confession that I owe you the money and have no defense to your claim for it.”

Once the debtor fell behind, the creditor could then take that confession, file it in court, and get the court to proceed directly to enter judgment against the debtor. The creditor didn’t have to file a lawsuit where he’d have to prove that the debtor owed the money; the debtor didn’t have to be given a chance to defend by saying he didn’t really owe the money. In some states, the debtor didn’t even have to be told the creditor was going to court. All of that was bypassed.

Think of this as the “go directly to jail, do not pass go” card for a business deal.

You may also come across a form of this confession under the name cognovit or cognovit actionem: “A defendant’s written confession of an action brought against him, to which he has no available defense. It is usually upon condition that he shall be allowed a certain time for the payment of the debt or damages, and costs. It is supposed to be given in court, and it impliedly authorizes the plaintiff’s attorney to sign judgment and issue execution.”5 The difference between the two is that the confession of judgment is signed by the debtor to be submitted to the court; the cognovit is usually a document by the debtor authorizing the judgment to be signed by the creditor’s attorney.

In either case, the reason why this still went to court, since the creditor didn’t have to prove his case, was that the creditor still wanted the court to enter judgment against the debtor: the legal order of the court fixing the amount owed, with interest, and usually with court costs and even attorneys’ fees.

And the entry of that document was the legal authority of the court to the creditor to begin to execute on the judgment — that is, start taking the debtor’s assets: his horse or his crops or his land or whatever else he owned. Having the legal judgment entered gave the creditor the right to get the sheriff involved with all those fancy named old writs of execution, like the fieri facias (abbreviated fi. fa. or fifa): “A writ of execution commanding the sheriff to levy and make the amount of a judgment from the goods and chattels of the judgment debtor.” 6 Or the venditioni exponas: “[A] writ of execution, requiring a sale to be made…” 7

So yes, Linda is absolutely right: William Vert was going to have to pay up.

But where would the records be? We sure want them in these cases, because there’s a good chance that one of the papers filed in a confession of judgment case was actually signed by the debtor: likely our ancestor.

The newspaper clipping says the case was filed in Superior Court, and just beneath this list of cases is another list involving a Judge Jameson. In November 1877, John A. Jameson was elected to his third six-year term as a Superior Court Judge in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois.8

That court no longer exists in Chocago, but its records are held by the Archives of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Cases from the Circuit and Superior Courts for the period 1871-1963 are indexed on microfilm, and “(c)ase files may contain cause of action (complaint), defendant’s response, motions and briefs filed; testimony (occasional): verdict (if jury trial); judge’s final order.”9

Go get ‘em… these should be interesting records!


  1. The Court Record, The (Chicago, Ill.) Inter Ocean, 13 Oct 1877, p. 7, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 7 Sep 2014).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 249, “confession of judgment.”
  3. The Law Dictionary ( : accessed 7 Sep 2014), “What is confession of judgment?”
  4. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 7 Sep 2014), “confession of judgment.”
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 218, “cognovit actionem.”
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 491, “fieri facias.”
  7. Ibid., “venditioni exponas.”
  8. “The Election,” Chicago Legal News: A Journal of Legal Intelligence, 10 Nov 1877, vol 10, p. 61; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 7 Sep 2014).
  9. Records and Archives: Archives Holdings,” Clerk of the Circuit Court, Cook County Illinois ( : accessed 7 Sep 2014).
Posted in Court Cases, Legal definitions, Resources | 2 Comments

DNA and Jack the Ripper

You have to love it.

Even the possibility that DNA could solve the coldest of cold cases just has to make a genetic genealogist smile.

And though there are a fair number of as-yet-unanswered question, you just have to love even the idea that we might now know who Jack the Ripper was … thanks to DNA.

JacktheRipper1888Jack the Ripper, you recall, is the nickname given to a serial killer who murdered at least five women in London’s Whitechapel area in 1888. As many as 11 other murders, up to 1891, were thought to be the work of the same killer, but only five in 1888 were considered certain to be his/her work.1

The reports over the weekend that the case file might now be marked “closed” come in advance of the publication of a book by a man who is a self-described “armchair detective.”

British businessman Russell Edwards, whose book Naming Jack The Ripper is about to be released for sale, wrote an article yesterday for the London newspaper, The Daily Mail, in which he claims that DNA has identified the killer: “Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who had fled to London with his family, escaping the Russian pogroms, in the early 1880s.”2

Edwards said that he acquired a blood-stained shawl that was supposed to have been found near the body of one of the certain victims. Reportedly, the shawl was originally in the possession of one of the investigating officers and was passed down through his family. It was loaned to Scotland Yard’s crime museum but not displayed because of questions about its provenance. After the family reclaimed the shawl in 2001, it was put up for auction and purchased by Edwards.3

The author noted that he spoke to a representative of the Crime Museum who said the chief investigator on the Jack the Ripper case always believed that Kosminski was the killer. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, but he was kept under police surveillance until he was committed to a mental institution where he spent the rest of his life.4

With the shawl, Edwards wrote, he needed four things to come up with an answer: (a) adequate DNA samples from the shawl; (b) a descendant of the victim whose blood was believed to be on the shawl; (c) a descendant of a member of the Kosminski family — the suspect left no descendants; and (d) a scientist who could do all the work and analysis.

The scientist he worked with was Dr. Jari Louhelainen, now associated with Liverpool John Moores University: “a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at LJMU, as well as Associate Professor of Biochemistry at University of Helsinki, one of the world’s top universities. He has two major lines of research – mammalian/medical genetics and forensics.”5 His genetic credentials are impressive.

Edwards said Louhelainen was able to extract DNA from two different people from the shawl. The scientist also tested DNA samples from two people: a known descendant of the victim, whose identity has been widely reported in the media and was featured in a documentary on Jack the Ripper; and a descendant of a member of the Kosminski family.6

And here, from a genetic genealogy point, is where we run into the snag. Edwards wrote: “Eventually, we tracked down a young woman whose identity I am protecting – a British descendant of Kosminski’s sister, Matilda, who would share his mitochondrial DNA.”7

Now he reports that the tests of this individual against the other DNA from the shawl is “a perfect match.” But without the identity of that person we’re left to take the author’s word for it. And the author has a vested interest in being able to say he has the answer to this 126-year-old mystery.

Now it’s also true that Louhelainen himself wrote for the newspaper that he was satisfied that “we have established, as far as we possibly can, that Aaron Kosminski is the culprit.” And, he said, the extracted DNA was “of a type known as the haplogroup T1a1, common in people of Russian Jewish ethnicity. I was even able to establish that he had dark hair.”8

Is that enough, without knowing the genealogy of the woman tested?

Not for a genealogist, of course, but…


Image: “With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Wikipedia (, “Jack the Ripper,” rev. 7 Sep 2014.
  2. Russell Edwards, “Jack the Ripper unmasked,” The Daily Mail online ( : accessed 6 Sep 2014).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See “Dr. Jari Louhelainen,” Liverpool John Moores University ( : accessed 6 Sep 2014).
  6. Edwards, “Jack the Ripper unmasked.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Dr. Jari Louhelainen, “Shawl that nailed Polish lunatic Aaron Kosminski and the forensic expert that made the critical match,” The Daily Mail online ( : accessed 6 Sep 2014).
Posted in DNA | 21 Comments

Surnames passing on a bus

The question practically jumped off the screen.

The Legal Genealogist was perusing the latest posts on Facebook and this question appeared, posted by my friend Heather Wilkinson Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy: “Did you ever see a surname somewhere and wonder ‘Are you my cousin’?”1

Oh yeah.

Oh absolutely yeah.

Sometimes it’s just ships passing in the night.

And sometimes, just sometimes, when you ask the follow-up question, you get the answer you really want.

Case in point: On Wednesday, August 27, my cousin Paula and I were attending the 2014 Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in San Antonio. Our mothers — mine the older sister, hers the baby of the family — were both born in Texas so it was a special trip for us.

L-R: Paula, Judy, Ruth

L-R: Paula, Judy, Ruth

We decided to go to the special event that evening, at the Institute of Texas Culture, and decided to take the bus provided by FGS from the hotel to the institute.2

I sat by the window, Paula by the aisle, and as other passengers boarded I went into my usual stare out the window totally oblivious to everything mode until I heard Paula’s whisper.

“Her name tag says Cottrell.”

“Say what?”

“Her name tag,” she repeated, with a nod of the head towards a woman boarding the bus, “says Cottrell.”

That’s our mothers’ maiden name.

Being the shy, retiring type that I am,3 I turned around to the woman, now taking a seat in the row behind us on the far side of the bus.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “but does your name tag say Cottrell?”

It did. And Ruth Cottrell was from Texas.

My radar started pinging. “We could be kin,” I said.

She wasn’t convinced. Her branch of the family, she said, was a pretty localized branch there in a corner of Texas.


Comanche County.

Now the radar is pinging big time. I thought that sounded familiar, so I grabbed my smart phone and did a quick online search.

Sure enough, there was a John Cottrell who’d served in the Civil War and who’d later moved to Comanche County4 who, we were pretty sure, was related somehow.

I mentioned that. She still wasn’t convinced. She’d had her son do YDNA testing, you see, and he only matched a few people.

I pulled up my uncle David’s results in the Cottrell surname project at Family Tree DNA, and asked her for her son’s name.

Sure enough, he only matched a few people in the Cottrell surname project.

And one of those he matches, at the 66-for-67 marker level, is my uncle David.

We spent the rest of the evening, sitting together, trying to figure out who the common ancestor will turn out to be. The big issue for our group of Cottrell men is that there’s virtually no change in the YDNA in any of the lines that descend from Richard Cottrell who died in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1715.

My line ended up in Texas by the mid-1840s. Cousin Ruth’s line ended up there around 1870. A third line was in Alabama by the 1830s. Others never left Virginia. And all the YDNA is ridiculously close — a tight group of 66-for-67 and 67-for-67 marker matches.

We’ll probably have to do more testing to see if we can nail down exactly how far back we have to go before all of our lines converge — it it with Richard? with his son Thomas or son Richard? with a grandson?

But think about the odds.

One person from New Jersey, one from Virginia, one from Texas. All attending not just one conference, but one particular event at the conference, and ending up on the same bus.

Surnames passing on a bus.

How cool is that?


  1. Heather Wilkinson Rojo, status update, 4 Sep 2014, Facebook ( : accessed 4 Sep 2014).
  2. It wasn’t that far… but oh… the heat and humidity… wow.
  3. You can quit laughing now.
  4. See “The Life and Timeline of J W Cottrell,” Random Thoughts & Leaps of Faith from the Back Porch ( : accessed 5 Sep 2014).
Posted in My family | 33 Comments

The exemption

There was, the widow carefully reported to the probate judge, no personal property at all left by her late husband.

Land, yes. The east one-half of the northwest quarter of Section 21, Township 3 South, Range 16 West, in Tillman County, Oklahoma, valued at $1700.1

InventoryBut when Jasper Robertson died in 1912, his widow Eula said, again and again, he left no personal property at all.

Now The Legal Genealogist would never want to speak ill of a widow trying to get by and support her four children after the untimely death of her husband.

And less in this case than in most: Jasper and Eula Robertson were my great grandparents.

But no personal property?

None at all?

Not a pipe or a watch or a cup or a mug or a knife or a fork or a pot?

Not a hoe or a rake or a plow?

This is a guy who owned 80 acres of land and, by 1908, had built a 14-by-32-foot house, a barn, and a chicken house, and had fenced in 40 acres, with 30 acres in cultivation.2

And yet he owned nothing?

How in the world could that be?

Easy answer, and the usual source for the answer.

It’s because of the law.

Oklahoma law, in this case, in a section of the law entitled Homestead and Exemption. And in the way homestead property was treated by the probate law.

First, Oklahoma law provided for certain types of “property reserved to heads of families” that would be “exempt from attachment of execution and every other species of forced sale for the payment of debts,” and that property included:

First. The homestead of the family, which shall consist of the home of the family, whether the title to the same shall be lodged in or owned by the husband or wife.
Second. All the household and kitchen furniture.
Third. Any lot or lots in a cemetery held for the purpose of sepulture.
Fourth. All implements of husbandry used upon the homestead.
Fifth. All tools, apparatus and books belonging to and used in any trade or profession.
Sixth. The family library and all family portraits and pictures and wearing apparel.
Seventh. Five milch cows and their calves under six months old.
Eighth. One yoke of work oxen with necessary yokes and chains.
Ninth. Two horses or two mules, and one wagon, cart or dray.
Tenth. One carriage or buggy.
Eleventh. One gun.
Twelfth. Ten hogs.
Thirteenth. Twenty head of sheep.
Fourteenth. All saddles, bridles and harness necessary for the use of the family.
Fifteenth. All provisions and forage on hand, or growing for home consumption, and for the use of exempt stock for one year.
Sixteenth. All current wages and earnings for personal or professional services earned within the last ninety days.3

On the death of any husband or wife, certain property was to be immediately delivered by the executor or administrator to the surviving spouse or children and was “not to be deemed assets,” including:

First. All family pictures.
Second. A pew or other sitting in any house of worship.
Third. A lot or lots in any burial ground.
Fourth. The family Bible and all school books used by the family, and all other books used as a part of the family library, not exceeding in value one hundred dollars.
Fifth. All wearing apparel and clothing of the decedent and his family.
Sixth. The provisions for the family necessary for one year’s supply, either provided or growing, or both ; and fuel necessary for one year.
Seventh. All household and kitchen furniture, including stoves, beds, bedsteads and bedding, not exceeding one hundred and fifty dollars in value.4

And, in addition, the surviving spouse and children were to be allowed “all such personal property or money as is exempt by law from levy and sale on execution or other final process from any court, to be, with the homestead, possessed and used by them.”5

So when Eula Robertson reported to the court that there was no personal property, what she meant was that there was no personal property that the creditors of the estate could get their hands on. The dishes, the beds, the kids’ clothes — she didn’t have to worry about those.

Which is how the estate of a farmer can have no personal property at all.


  1. Tillman County, Oklahoma, County Court, Estate of Jasper C. Robertson, File No. 134, General Inventory and Appraisement, filed 22 March 1913; digital images, “Oklahoma Probate Records, 1887-2008,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 4 Sep 2014).
  2. Homestead Proof–Testimony of Claimant, 29 August 1908, Jasper C. Robertson (Tillman County, Oklahoma), cash sale entry, certificate no. 246, Lawton, Oklahoma, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  3. §3342, Chapter 34, Homestead and Exemptions, in Samuel Harris and Jean Day, compilers, Revised Laws of Oklahoma, 1910 (St. Paul, Minn. : Pioneer Co., 1912), I: 833; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Sep 2014).
  4. Ibid., §6328, Chapter 64, “Procedure–Probate,” Article VI: Homestead and Family Allowance, II: 1735; digital images, HathiTrust ( : accessed 4 Sep 2014).
  5. Ibid., §6329, II: 1736.
Posted in Statutes | 6 Comments

What your generosity is doing

The final numbers are out.

And they are mind-boggling.

An absolutely stunning tribute to what to genealogical community can do when it decides to do it.

Pensions1812cWhen The Legal Genealogist picked up the ball on the planned walk-to-raise-funds at the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ 2014 Conference in San Antonio, all I was thinking, frankly, was making it possible for maybe 10 or 15 folks who couldn’t attend to add their voices by sponsoring someone who could participate in the Saturday morning walk to the Alamo.

The goal, of course, was to raise funds for the Preserve the Pensions campaign: the effort to raise funds to digitize and thus permanently preserve some of the most fragile and genealogically significant records that exist — the records of pension applications from the War of 1812.

The end result of the project will be to make full color reproductions of these documents available, free, forever, online.

Even when the plan changed to a Celebrity Walk (I got to walk along with the Genealogy Roadshow stars Josh Taylor and Kenyatta Berry and FGS conference co-chair Ed Donakey), I thought, perhaps, we might bring in a whopping big $5,000 — which, with matching funds first from FGS and then from Ancestry, would become $20,000.

I was so wrong.

The immediate response was overwhelming.

So I raised my sights. Could we possibly bring in $12,500 in contributions and, with matching, break $50,000 for the whole campaign?

It looked just barely possible.

I was so wrong.

We broke $50,000 just looking at the online contribution totals.

And now we have the final numbers.

Direct from yesterday’s Preserve the Pensions blog, here is what we — you and me and all of us — did:

FGS2014 Celebrity Fun Walk Donations


Plus Federation of Genealogical Societies Match


Plus Match


Equals Funding to Digitize

362,206 pages

I am so very grateful for everyone’s support. Preserving these fragile and genealogically invaluable records is such a good cause. And these final numbers are heartwarming.

Except that those aren’t the final numbers.

Even yesterday, The Legal Genealogist received another $50 via PayPal from a reader in South Africa. South Africa, for cryin’ out loud!

Keep it up. Keep it coming. Get your society to join in. Do something special at every event you organize.

We still have a ways to go to raise all the funds needed…

But I have no doubt we’ll make it.

Thank you.

Posted in General | 12 Comments

FGS goes North to Alaska!

Think for a moment about the excitement of a genealogy conference: a range of speakers offering guidance on a range of topics we need to know about for our research.

cruise-shipThen think about the pleasures of cruising: every minute catered for by ship crew and staff, gourmet meals, and fascinating ports of call.

Put the two together and what have you got?

Genealogy cruising… with the Federation of Genealogical Societies, setting sail on 28 August 2015 from Seattle through the Alaska Inside Passage and back.

And this cruise couldn’t get much better.

First off, the genealogy. There will be four speakers on the cruise:

Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA

David E. Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA

Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL

D. Joshua Taylor, MA, MLS

Even setting aside that legal type person there, this is one of the strongest line-ups you’ll ever see. Elizabeth Shown Mills is one of genealogy’s shining lights — an expert on methodology who leads us all gently to be the best we can be. David Rencher’s command of Irish and British records and research methods can’t be beat. Josh Taylor is both a first-rate genealogist and understands the needs of societies and their leaders better than anyone around. And I suppose The Legal Genealogist must add something to the mix… at least entertainment value!

From DNA testing to eastern origins of western families and everything in between, the conference program is stellar. You can read more about the speakers here, get a look at the sessions here, and the overall schedule is set out here.

And if that’s not enough, there will be two special shore excursions to genealogically-relevant sites — one each on the port days in Juneau and Skagway. Plus, of course, opportunities to go off and do your own thing every time the ship — the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas — is in port.

And then there’s the cruising part. Just reading the descriptions is enough to make you drool:

Alaska Inside Passage
Millions of years ago, southbound glaciers carved out the Inside Passage, leaving majestic fjords, islands and bays in their wake. Alaska’s Inside Passage is awash with pristine water mountain views. From the lush greenery of Tongass National Forest—the world’s largest and northernmost temperate coastal rainforest—to the brilliant blue glaciers, you’ll see jaw-dropping beauty everywhere you look. A cruise among the fjords and islands takes you into prime habitat for bald eagles, sea lions, and whales. The Inside Passage is home to the totem poles of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Indians, and Russian setters, as well as prospectors, lumberjacks, and fishermen. All have added to the tapestry of this area’s history.

Tracy Arm Fjord
Nestled between 3,000-foot high granite walls, the narrow, twisting slice of ocean called Tracy Arm Fjord weaves through the Tongass National Forest for roughly 35 miles. The shoreline is spotted with waterfalls created by melting snowcaps and trees sprouting at odd angles from rocky outcroppings. Tracy Arm, a classic fjord, has it all: snow-capped peaks, shear rock palisades, rainbows and tidewater glaciers. Drift among icebergs and waterfalls that cascade thousands of feet for the most close-up view of Sawyer Glacier. You’ll see incredible mountains and emerald green water, and be able to watch for whales, bear, eagles and mountain goats, and seals.

Add to that Seattle as the beginning and end point — a gorgeous city in its own right, Victoria in British Columbia with world-famous gardens and its walkable inner-city streets, and Juneau and Skagway and…

Well, it sure sounds like a winner in every possible way.

Especially since we all have a year to save up our pennies to pay for everything we want to do!

Ready to book? Reservations information can be found here and both conference registration and cruise reservations are officially open now, and balcony cabins are already almost sold out — so book soon!

Genealogy from the best… in the best possible way… in one of the world’s best locations.

I can’t wait.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

Broad rights granted in license

One of the big buzzes in the genealogical community right now is the ability to create multimedia stories of our families on various websites.

Just add a few facts — names, dates, places — upload some family photos and documents, and voila! A polished finished product gets produced as if by magic, with music and timelines of events and more.

WDYTYAOne of these services is the Who Do You Think You Are? Story website from DC Thomson Family History Limited, the parent company of findmypast (both the US and UK varieties).

It’s a beta product at the moment, and it was being featured at last week’s 2014 Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in San Antonio.

And because the whole function of the website is to get us to share our information, we always always always have to take a very careful look at the website’s 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.”1 And when it comes to a site where sharing is involved, terms of use are also those pesky little sometimes-written-in-legal-jargon provisions saying what the website can do with anything you choose to upload.

For the most part, Who Do You Think You Are? Story’s terms of use are perfectly ordinary and, to the company’s credit, written in plain English.2 But there are a couple of provisions that every potential user should read carefully, and stop and think about, before uploading a single item or sharing a single fact on the site.

The big one affects anything you choose to upload to the site, and the criticial language is highlighted in bold:

You keep the copyright in any content that you create or publish on the website, but by publishing it you give us permission (a non-exclusive, perpetual, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide licence) to use it (including editing, adapting or modifying it as we wish) for any purpose and in any media now known or invented in the future.

Please be aware that we may not credit you as the author of the material.3

In plain English, by using the website and uploading anything — a photo, a story, any comments you share about an ancestor or about your research — you are giving the parent company, DC Thomson Family History Limited, an unlimited right to use what you’ve uploaded. It’s a license, meaning you do keep your own copyright in your own work, but it’s a license that allows DC Thomson Family History Limited to do just about everything that, ordinarily, copyright law says only the creator of the work can do: copy it, display it, create derivative works from it, and modify it.

If you choose to upload something and create your story online, you must understand that you are agreeing to allow it to be used, edited, adapted, changed, and modified for any purpose the company chooses at any time the company chooses. It could use your story for advertising, if it wished, without paying you, and it wouldn’t even have to give you credit for it.

And it can change the work — the story — you’ve created. That’s what you’re giving the company with the “editing, adapting or modifying it as we wish” language.

Your grant of permission is perpetual — meaning forever — and it’s unrestricted. You can’t come back later and say you didn’t mean it; there’s no mechanism in place to have any content removed from the service unless it’s found to violate someone else’s copyright or is offensive or defamatory.

The company has the right, under this grant of permission, to sell the entire operation, lock stock and barrel, to some other company down the road (that’s the transferable part), or to allow another company to use the content (that’s the sub-licensable part).

You also need to understand that your work can be viewed and, potentially, used by everyone else who uses the website for their own personal noncommercial research.

Let’s be clear about this: there’s absolutely nothing wrong about what Who Do You Think You Are? Story is doing; it’s not hiding a thing. It’s a commercial venture that’s trading you a place and a method to share your materials and in return you give the company the rights to your materials. If that doesn’t sit well with you — if you have qualms about it — don’t use one of these story-creation sites. It’s as simple as that.

And, by the way, because you’re the one granting the license, if you do choose to upload, make sure you only upload things you have the right to share. The terms of use make you responsible and require that you do not “share the personal details of any living person without their permission” or “publish something that you do not own the copyright in (or have permission to publish it from the owner).”4

If there’s a dispute down the road, the case is going to be decided a long way from your home: “These Terms are made under English law, and any arguments about them will only be heard in English courts.”5

Beyond the sharing issues, another stop-and-think provision is the requirement that anyone using the site for commercial purposes get consent:

Using site content for commercial purposes: You must contact us for consent if you want to reproduce or share any of the content on the site (including images) for commercial purposes. This includes commercial publishing or sharing in any media format now known, or invented in the future. You’re free to use and share the content on the site for non-commercial use…6

The problem is that there’s no definition of commercial purposes on the website. Could a genealogy professional create one of these stories for a client? Use a screen capture for a blog post? Use a short clip in a genealogy lecture? Are you a commercial user if your blog has Google Adwords or a FlipPal link? It isn’t clear.

Bottom line: share with care. If you create one of these stories, you’ve given up control over it — completely and forever.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 1 Sep 2014).
  2. Terms & Conditions: How You Can Use Our Service,” Who Do You Think You Are? Story ( : accessed 1 Sep 2014).
  3. Ibid., “Your Content.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., “Limitations.”
  6. Ibid., “Using the Service.”
Posted in Terms of use | 20 Comments