And dust to dust

It is January in Utah. Cold, overcast, winds with a nip to them, little wisps of snow every so often that bounce off of coats and gloves and add highlights to hair.

The Legal Genealogist is here in Salt Lake City getting ready — or trying to get ready! — for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy that officially gets underway late tomorrow.

And thinking back to another January here in Utah many years ago.

HHGMy father Hugo H. Geissler was an immigrant from Germany. He came to America with his parents in 1925, the last of a series of family members to make the trip across the Atlantic to settle in a new land.

The adjustment couldn’t have been easy for any of the family. A new language. New customs. New laws to live under and abide by.

In some respects, I’ve always thought my father may have had it easiest: he was not quite four when he arrived in America and it would be easy to think that he grew up really as an American.

But the more I’ve studied the German community in general in Chicago, where his family settled, and the more I’ve found out about his family in particular, the more I’ve wondered just how hard it must have been for all of them.

Germans were not particularly welcome in America during or after the First World War. They were surely better off economically in the United States than they would have been had they stayed in the old country but there must have been a terrible sense of isolation from the broader American community.

And as the winds of war began to blow again in Europe during the years when my father was growing to manhood, how hard must it have been for all of them to know what side they were on — what side they wanted to be on.

My father was astonishingly closed-mouthed about his family and its history, to the point where my own research findings as a genealogist have been one surprise after another, but one story he did tell was of a promise made to the German boys of Chicago by recruiters anxious to fill the ranks of the American military as the war drew near and then the storm broke.

That promise: “we will not send you to fight your cousins in Europe.”

It was a promise the military couldn’t keep. Loads of German-American boys were sent to Europe. The prospect was so awful to my German-born grandmother that she directed my father’s education and his job choices to ensure that he wouldn’t be drafted during the war: he was an engineer in the oil and chemical industry after he graduated from college and held a deferment throughout the entirety of World War II. That set him apart from his few American-born cousins, who did serve — and who didn’t ever understand why he didn’t.

And the fact that he didn’t further isolated him in some ways when he decided to leave Chicago and teach petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in the late 1940s: all of his students were older than he was — veterans returning from the war and taking up the GI bill’s benefits to begin new lives in peacetime. He and his students had nothing in common.

I’ve never been entirely sure what he and my mother had in common when they met there in Colorado either. They were chalk and cheese. He was formal German; she was folksy west Texan.

He was raised as an only child, his only sibling having died before he was born; she was the fifth-born of 12 children, and the fourth of 10 to survive to adulthood.

He was a college graduate, with a degree in engineering; she dropped out of high school to work in the war effort.

He liked fried chicken livers and limburger cheese; she liked fried okra and biscuits and gravy.

He fell asleep watching the 10 o’clock news; she fell asleep watching the sunrise.

The only thing they really had in common was seven children — children who tended to adore her, children who tended to fear him. Children who were not at all surprised when they divorced.

Children who tried, in various ways, to understand him. To keep in touch. To bridge what seemed like a widening gap as he moved on in his life — to Texas, to Arizona, finally to Utah.

Children who awoke one January day, 17 years ago, to the news that he was no more. That he had succumbed to the heart disease that was epidemic on his side of the family.

Children who took his ashes, and spread them into the cold of a January in Utah, the overcast, the winds with a nip to them, the little wisps of snow every so often that bounce off of coats and gloves and add highlights to hair.

Children who still wish they understood more… and that the isolation had been less.

Posted in My family | 15 Comments

Taylor to head NYG&B

This week is just full of good news out of the Big Apple.

First, we got the news from the New York Public Library that it had opened up its entire collection of more than 180,000 public domain images and documents in high-resolution format — completely free of restrictions, fees or permissions. As the announcement said, “No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!”1

The Legal Genealogist thought it’d be hard to beat that.

And then the second announcement came in.

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B) announced that it had concluded its search for a new president to succeed McKelden Smith, who is retiring after serving as president for the past seven years.

Now you have to know a little about the history of the NYG&B in recent years. It hit a really rocky patch back in 2006-2007 over the sale of its building on 58th Street in Manhattan. A dispute over that sale and the role of the membership in the future of the NYG&B threatened to splinter the organization to the point where its ability to continue was in doubt.2

McKelden Smith was the first president chosen after the brouhaha over the building — and he had his hands full getting the NYG&B back on track. It’s to his enormous credit that the society — the second oldest genealogical society in the United States — recovered and thrived.

So choosing a successor wasn’t a simple task at all. The new president needed to be able to continue serving as a public face of the NYG&B to the broader New York community and administering the many tasks of the NYG&B. But the general feeling was that the successor needed one more set of skills: the new president also needed to have strong genealogical credentials.

That’s not an easy combination to find. There are loads of thoroughly competent genealogists with strong credentials. There are loads of people with enough public presence to adequately represent and lead (and, let’s face it, fund-raise for) a group like the NYG&B. There are very few potential candidates who can do both.

for Genealogy RoadshowBut, yesterday, the NYG&B announced that it had landed one of those very few: as of February 1, the new president of the NYG&B will be D. Joshua Taylor.

Newcomers to the genealogical community may know Josh mostly as a featured genealogist on the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? and currently as a host on the popular PBS series Genealogy Roadshow, just wrapping up production for its third season.

His credentials are a lot broader and deeper than that.

He holds a master’s degree in history and a master of library science degree in archival management. He’s the former Director of Education and Programs at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, former Director of Family History at, and currently serves as President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

His written work includes numerous articles in American Ancestors, the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, and other periodicals, and he authored The Keane and Sheahan Families of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a study of a family’s immigration and life in New England after the Irish famine.

It’s a good match, between a great genealogist and a great genealogical society. You can read more at the NYG&B blog, here.


  1. Shana Kimball, “Free for All: NYPL Enhances Public Domain Collections For Sharing and Reuse,” NYPL Blogs, posted 5 Jan 2016 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2016).
  2. See e.g. Diane Haddad, “NYG&B Controversy: Members Decry Voting Proposal,” Genealogy Insider, posted 13 Feb 2007 ( : accessed 7 Jan 2016).
Posted in General, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

NYPL offers high-res options

The Legal Genealogist is heading off to Salt Lake City later today, in advance of next week’s Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), but can’t leave without taking a quick moment to highlight a brand-new announcement by the New York Public Library.


It has just enhanced its NYPL Digital Collections offerings of public domain materials by offering them as high-resolution downloads we can all use without any copyright concerns. As the announcement said: “No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!”1

More than 180,000 digitized items are now free of administrative and processing fees, free of permission requests, free of any hassles at all. And, the announcement tells us, “Online users of the NYPL Digital Collections website will find more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content…”2

That free content includes some of the best of the Library’s holdings, including papers and correspondence of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; manuscripts from Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau; more than 40,000 stereoscopes from all parts of the United States; and more than 20,000 maps and atlases from around the world.

The NYPL announcement explains that the changes are “intended to facilitate sharing, research and reuse by scholars, artists, educators, technologists, publishers, and Internet users of all kinds. All subsequently digitized public domain collections will be made available in the same way, joining a growing repository of open materials.”3

To show off the ways these public domain materials can be used, the library has some really neat features and demonstration projects:

• “a visual browsing tool allowing users to explore the public domain collections at scale;”

• “a ‘mansion builder’ game, exploring floor plans of grand turn-of-the-century New York apartments;”

• “a then-and-now comparison of New York’s Fifth Avenue, juxtaposing 1911 wide angle photographs with Google Street View; and”

• “a ‘trip planner’ using locations extracted from mid-20th century motor guides that listed hotels, restaurants, bars, and other destinations where Black travelers would be welcome.”

For more information on the public domain materials and projects at the NYPL, check out the Library’s public domain page,


  1. Shana Kimball, “Free for All: NYPL Enhances Public Domain Collections For Sharing and Reuse,” NYPL Blogs, posted 5 Jan 2016 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2016).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
Posted in Resources | 6 Comments

Ordering applications from the SSA

Yesterday’s blog post about what may and may not have been recorded in an application for a Social Security number — the SS-5 form — prompted a rash of questions about ordering the form, how to do it, and what the risks are. So today The Legal Genealogist repeats this post, originally posted in 20131 with a few extra caveats tossed in for good measure.

The original inquiry, in 2013, asked for guidance in exactly what to order from the Social Security Administration, how to order it — and “whether we will spend the money and get nothing.”

What to order

The form you want to order from the Social Security Administration is generally known as an Application for a Social Security Number — the Form SS-5.2 The example below is my grandfather’s SS-5 form from 19373:

Whether it’ll be worth it

From the very beginning of the Social Security system in 1935, the form required a number of key pieces of information, including:

     • First, middle and last name
     • Present mailing address
     • Age at last birthday
     • Date of birth
     • Place of birth (including city, county and state)
     • Father’s full name
     • Mother’s full maiden name
     • Race or color
     • Date and signature

At various times, an applicant may have also had to specify his or her full name at birth, including maiden name if a married female, the name of the current employer and employer’s address, and other information.

Getting a copy of this form is almost always worth it. The information on the SS-5 form was usually provided by the applicant, and so is often the best source of information about what the applicant knew about his or her own birth and parentage.

The worst you’ll get is information supplied by an employer that filled out the form from its employees’ records and had them sign it — which adds another layer of possible human error, or the lie the applicant told for whatever reason. In my family, for example, a cousin of my father’s listed her grandparents as her parents to avoid having to admit that she’d been born out of wedlock. But even that information is worth having.

How to order it

To order a copy of an applicant’s SS-5, you need to make a formal request under the federal Freedom of Information Act using Form SSA-771. And you can do that in one of two ways: online and by mail. Which method you choose should depend entirely on when the applicant was born and died.

Here’s why:

First of all, you can only get a copy of an SS-5 form for a person who is deceased. The living all have a right of privacy that the government recognizes in the information supplied on the form. So you must be able to prove that the person is dead.

As of 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) changed its privacy policy and now declares that it “will not disclose information about any person in our records who is under 120 years old, except in those cases where we have acceptable proof of death (e.g., death certificate, obituary, newspaper article, or police report).”4

Generally speaking, the SSA has in the past accepted the fact that the person’s name appears on the Social Security Death Master File (what we know as the Social Security Death Index or SSDI) as proof that the person is deceased. But since 2011 not all deaths have been included in the public version of the SSDI — that’s when the SSA stopped including deaths from protected state death reports5 — and it’s just not clear anymore whether the SSA will look to its own records instead of the public version to determine whether someone is deceased.

So with newer deaths, deaths of younger persons, and as to anyone whose name you can’t find in the public SSDI, you may well need to supply proof of death and that can’t be done using the online system.

Second, under that 2011 privacy policy change, the SSA has made it harder to get the very information most useful from the SS-5 forms: the date and place of birth and the names of the parents. Here’s what the SSA says now: “under our current policy, we do not release the parents’ names on an SS-5 application unless the parents’ are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age.”6

In a large number of cases, people who have ordered SS-5 forms since 2011 have found the copies they receive have had the names of the parents redacted (blacked out) and even on occasion the date and place of birth as well.

To avoid that, you need to provide evidence that the parents are deceased, or that they would have been born more than 120 years ago, unless the person whose SS-5 you’re ordering was born more than 100 years ago. And, again, there’s no way to attach that proof in the online system.

So even though the online ordering system is faster, the only time it really makes sense to use it any more is where (a) the person whose form you want was born more than 100 years ago and (b) you’re darned sure that there aren’t any Social Security records showing the parents were under age 20 when the person was born. If you’re sure about both of those facts, then it’s safe to make the request using the online SSA-771 form even if you don’t have an exact date of death or proof of death (for the person or the person’s parents).

In all other cases, you should probably download the SSA-771 form and send it in by mail with your supporting evidence. The address for mailing is:

Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, Maryland 21290-3022

There are lots of ways to prove your case that may carry the day with the SSA. I’ve personally used some combination of the following in a number of cases:

     • An obituary of the person saying the parents predeceased the person
     • Death records of the parents
     • Tombstone photos
     • A census record showing the ages of the parents

If you get a redacted record

Whenever you get a redacted version of the SS-5 anyway, whether from the online system or by mail, you don’t have to take no for an answer. You can appeal the decision to redact it and send in the additional evidence to the address provided in the letter that accompanies the redacted version.

There’s no formal process for an appeal: just write a letter explaining why you think the information should not have been redacted, and include every bit of evidence you can think of. Be nice, be professional — but don’t just accept the decision. It’s very common for an initial redaction decision to be overturned.

If you never get a record you paid for

This has happened more than once, and a fellow genealogist said just yesterday that it had happened to her: she’d sent in a request, the check had been cashed… and she never got anything from the SSA.

And that’s one thing you should never simply accept. Once a reasonable amount of time has passed since the check was cashed — 90 to 120 days — you need to do something.

First, write to the SSA again at that Baltimore address. Enclose a copy of the cancelled check or proof that the check was cashed (a print-out of your online bank info, for example). Give the SSA a reasonable time — say, 30 days — to provide the missing document and make it clear you will continue to press the issue.

If you don’t hear back at the end of that time period, write again, but this time write directly to the office of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Right now, the acting Commissioner is Carolyn W. Colvin. I’d probably send it in care of the Office of Public Inquiries at:

1100 West High Rise
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235

And in that letter, I’d do the same “please respond within 30 days” and enclose all previous correspondence.

And after that time period, it’s time to go to your member of Congress. Every member of Congress has a constituent affairs officer — somebody whose job it is to keep the home voters happy. Write to your Congressional member (names and addresses can be found here — enter your zipcode and then click on the icon to go to that Congress member’s website for contact details).

Government officials tend to respond — quickly — when members of Congress get involved. Maybe the SSA types will ignore us — but it won’t ignore the people who authorize their paychecks.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 May 2013 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  2. See generally Pamela Boyer Sayre, “The SS-5: Application for Social Security Number,” Social Security Sleuthing, Genealogy ( : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  3. Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  4. Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  5. See Kimberly Powell, “Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index,” Genealogy ( : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  6. Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
Posted in General, Records Access, Resources | 26 Comments

Just how good will the info be?

A great question came in yesterday from reader Jon Federman — and boy, does it need an answer everyone can see.

It has to do with the information recorded on the SS-5 — that application for a social security number that’s so important to so many of us in trying to track down family information.

It’s one document where we know the applicant was supposed to list critical information like date and place of birth and even the names of the parents.

It’s also one document that doesn’t come free: the current fee is $27 if you know the social security number and $29 if you don’t provide the number.1

It can take a long time, often months, between the time you make a request and the time the document comes in, and even if you do everything right, you may not get all the information you want because of privacy rules.2

So, Jon said, he had a big question before he spent the time and money to order a record:

Was there any requirement of specificity when listing place of birth for foreign-born applicants? For example, I know my grandfather was born in Poland – do you think he would have been required to list a city or town – or would “Poland” have been sufficient for someone born outside the US?

Now … any and all of us struggling to track our foreign-born relatives back to a town of origin can all wish the answer to Jon’s question was an unequivocal yes. Wouldn’t it be nice if each and every applicant had to list everything down to the street address of the birthplace?

But, alas, that simply wasn’t the case.

Yes, the application form called for the birthplace and, ultimately, for the city, county and state of birth.

But no, no matter what the form said, the Social Security Administration didn’t bounce an application where the foreign-born applicant didn’t list anything more than a country of birth.

I can say that with absolute certainty because I have an example in my own family:


My grandfather’s sister Elly simply listed Germany as her birthplace when she got her social security number in 1951.

So… Jon’s grandfather might have listed a city or district in Poland… but then again he might not have.

You pays your money and you takes your chances…


  1. See “FOIA Request Methods and Fees : Fees for Frequently Requested Records,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 4 Jan 2016).
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 May 2013 ( : accessed 4 Jan 2016).
Posted in General, Resources | 19 Comments

Not legal advice!

So many reader questions come in that are beyond what The Legal Genealogist can answer in this blog, because they’re asking for legal advice. Um… that’s not what this blog is all about. Not what this blog can do.

It’s necessary, or at least advisable, to explain every so often some of the limits on what I’m up to here at The Legal Genealogist. You know, the little things, like making sure I don’t get sued and the furniture isn’t trashed in a brawl.

So here, at the beginning of my fifth year of blogging, let me take the opportunity to repeat these…

The rules of my road.

I’m not your lawyer.

I have a law degree. But I’m not your lawyer. I’m not even in active practice as a lawyer any more. I’m not licensed in your state, and I’m not giving legal advice online. We don’t have an attorney-client relationship, so anything you say can be held against you. If you get sued because of something I say here, I won’t represent you. I won’t even testify for you. I will, however, be enormously amused.

Seriously, this blog is general commentary on lots of things, including general commentary on the law. If you’re looking for more than general commentary on the law, you need to consult a lawyer in your home state. If you think this is more than general commentary on the law, you do need to consult a professional… but not of the legal variety.

I could be wrong.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m (gasp) human. Which means, at any given time, on any given matter, I could be wrong. If I’m wrong about a fact, I’d like to know it. (I was delighted when Donn Devine told me about early Delaware statutes I hadn’t been aware of, and when Peter Hirtle set me straight on how the King James Bible is covered by a Crown patent.) So tell me when you know more than I do or I’ve just plain goofed. As to everything else, don’t buy what I say uncritically; check the sources I cite and make your own decisions. You may well come to a different conclusion.

No advertising.

It appears that people selling (probably counterfeit) Coach bags and (undoubtedly overpriced) sports jerseys think that the comments area on genealogy blogs should be their personal playgrounds. Uh uh. Not here. And especially not the dolt who thought this lifelong New York Giants fan would be happy with a comment touting Tom Brady jerseys. Well, maybe… depending on whether I could dictate what was on the jersey…

No politics.

It appears that the extreme fringes of the political spectrum have people sitting out there, trolling every single nook and cranny of the Internet, looking for places where they can pop up and spew their conspiracy theories. “Obama wants to close the SSDI because he wants to hide his birth certificate!” “Romney is a Mormon and Mormons do genealogy so genealogy is a Republican plot!”

Bleah. A pox on all your houses. If you haven’t got anything substantive to say about genealogy, it ain’t going live here. And if it sneaks by me at first, it’ll get deleted when I spot it. (But see below as to My turf. My rules.)

No flaming.

Play nice. We’re not all ever going to agree with each other on everything. But disagreeing doesn’t have to be disagreeable. So no personal attacks, ever.

My turf. My rules.

And last but hardly least, I pay the bills for this website. I don’t accept advertising and I don’t charge admission. Which means that this is my turf. Which means that I get to set the rules. So no, I’m probably not making your comment live if you don’t provide a real email address. I can stop you from commenting if I think you’re being an annoying pest. I really don’t have to talk about an issue if I choose not to. And I don’t have to stop talking about something that I do want to talk about (that includes the very very few times I can’t help myself from saying something you might construe as political). Your freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can interfere with mine. It means that you’re free to do exactly the same thing … on any website where you pay the bills and you set the rules.

How the World Sees Genealogists (Image used with permission of Jim Owston)

Posted in General | 26 Comments

Starting the New Year off right

So here we are on the first Sunday of 2016, and The Legal Genealogist stops to take stock on the DNA side of genealogy.

It’s the time for each of us to ask ourselves: What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and what could I be doing better in 2016?

And judging from reader comments and complaints, there were loads of New Year’s Resolutions we all made back in January 2015 to make ourselves better genetic genealogists — and then promptly broke.

So… in the hopes that at least this genetic genealogist will do better in 2016, here are my suggestions for five resolutions we can all make that would benefit us all as genetic genealogists.

Resolution Number 5:

I will do my paper trail genealogical homework.

I get it. I really do. I understand only too well how much we all want DNA testing to be the magic bullet. Just take this test and — presto! — all of our genealogical brick walls will come tumbling down.

It’s wonderful!

It’s amazing!

And that’s fantasy, not reality.

DNA testing just doesn’t work that way. The simple fact is that, as much as I really really really want to know who the parents were of my scoundrel second great grandfather George Cottrell, I’m not going to get the answer by DNA testing alone.

Barring any cousins marrying cousins at that level, I have 32 third great grandparents — 16 sets of them. And I can test myself and my cousins until the cows come home, but without the paper trail research I’m not very likely to figure out whether any given match is from this set of third great grandparents or that set of third great grandparents — or from some other ancestral couple further back in time.

As much as I’d love to wave the magic DNA wand and get the answer, the reality is that DNA testing is just one more type of evidence that has to be used in conjunction with — alongside — hand-in-hand with all the other types of evidence we collect along the paper trail. It’s something we use with our other tools, not instead of our other tools.

So I resolve to do my paper-trail homework.

Resolution Number 4:

I will do my DNA educational homework.

Let’s face it: not only is DNA not the magic bullet we want to solve all our genealogical mysteries, it’s also hard.

Recombination! Triangulation! Heteroplasmy! X-chromosome inheritance patterns! Ranges of shared centiMorgans!

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

None of this is easy.

And it’s not like we can simply pick up a book, study it and come away knowing everything we need to know, because the field is changing so fast that some days it feels like we’re running a million miles an hour just to have a chance of staying in one place.

I’m going to take time to educate myself on a broader deeper level. I’m headed to an advanced DNA course later this year. I’ve added a couple of additional blogs to those I try to read on a regular basis. I’m trying to stay up with what’s being discovered and the techniques that are working — as well as learning to set aside some that we’re now realizing don’t work as well as we hoped they might.

This is an area where we’re going to lose if we snooze, and the only chance we have to make the most of this tool is to educate ourselves.

So I resolve to do my DNA educational homework.

Resolution Number 3:

I will do my testing company homework.

Along with the other homework I need to do in 2016, I need to make sure I keep abreast of all the changes at the testing companies, so I know what I’m getting into — and what I’m asking my cousins to get into — when I recommend a particular test.

We need to be clear, when we agree to test, about what information about ourselves we’re agreeing to let the testing company use, and how it’d going to be used. This is largely a matter of personal comfort levels: some people have no problem in disclosing their entire genomes with their names and other identifying information attached; others won’t take a genealogical DNA test without using a pseudonym.

Now let’s face it: when we test with a big profit-making company, we’re not only customers who pay for a service, but we’re also part of the product that company then uses or sells to others in the hopes of making a bigger profit. That’s certainly what’s going on at 23andMe and at AncestryDNA: if we test with either of those, we agree to let the companies use our anonymized DNA — data with our personal identifiers removed and aggregated with the data of others — for all kinds of purposes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we’re told about it and agree to it when we test. And that means we have to read the documents and agreements and terms of service presented to us and not just click through blindly agreeing to who knows what. That’s particularly true since the clickthroughs may be giving agreement to much more: both companies want us to agree to allow them to use non-anonymized data — that is, data with names and identifiers attached — and make it very easy to just click through to that without thinking.

It’s our responsibility to know what we’re agreeing to. It’s our responsibility to know what we’re asking our cousins to agree to when we ask them to test. We have to read those agreements, understand those agreements — and say no when we’re uncomfortable with the terms of those agreements.

This is part and parcel of being an ethical genealogist, and we should all read and follow both the National Genealogical Society’s Genealogical Standards and Guidelines, most particularly its “Standards For Sharing Information With Others” and the Genetic Genealogy Standards developed by an ad hoc committee of genealogists, genetic genealogists and scientists to address some of the particular issues arising from DNA testing.

Resolution Number 2:

I will take ethnicity estimates not merely with a grain of salt but with the whole darned salt lick.1

If I had a nickel for every question I get about these blasted ethnicity estimates, I’d be rich. Filthy rich even. “Why does AncestryDNA say I’m 31% Scandinavian when I have no known Scandinavian ancestors at all?” “Why doesn’t the test show Native American when my great great great grandmother was Lakota Sioux?” “Why are my ethnicity results different from my sister’s?”

Folks, seriously, they’re called estimates for a reason. The term I’ve used before is cocktail party conversation pieces.2 And frankly, the term I’d be more inclined to use these days is WAGs — a lovely American acronym that means “wild-assed guesses.”3

Understand that what these estimates do is take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time to estimate (or guess) what the population of, say, Ireland or Egypt looked like 500 or 1,000 years ago. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

Please… read up on the limits of ethnicity estimates. And then put that aside in favor of all the things DNA tests really can do for genealogy.

Resolution Number 1:

I will not delay in getting that older member of the family tested.

Goes without saying, doesn’t it? How many of us bid a sad farewell to a loved one in 2015? How many of us will have to bid farewell to someone we love in 2016? How many of us ourselves will not be here to ring in the New Year of 2017?

Particularly when it comes to autosomal DNA — the kind we inherit from both parents that changes and mixes and recombines from generation to generation4 — DNA is a finite resource. The amount of DNA passed down from an ancestor through autosomal DNA drops dramatically with every generation until, after only a few generations, there may not be enough from that ancestor to be detectable. (Which, by the way, explains a lot of those weird ethnicity estimates, particularly when something you expect to see isn’t in the results.)

With autosomal DNA, then, getting a grandparent to test is better than getting a parent to test, and getting a parent to test is better than testing yourself. Every generation further back that we can test means a more complete database — and more and better matches.

So the number one priority resolution for 2016 — as it was in 2015 — has to be not to lose that genetic legacy. Let’s get our oldest generations tested.


  1. City dwellers may not be familiar with salt licks. They are blocks of salt set out for cattle, horses and other animals to lick. It’s a way to get essential minerals into the animals’ diet. “What is a Salt Lick?WiseGeek ( : accessed 2 Jan 2016). Think a grain of salt on steroids.
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013 ( : accessed 2 Jan 2016).
  3. InternetSlang ( : accessed 2 Jan 2016), “WAG.”
  4. ISOGG Wiki (, “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 1 Jan 2016.
Posted in DNA | 17 Comments

Looking back to 2015, forward to 2016

Stories in The Legal Genealogist‘s family take us back a long way in America on the maternal side and in Germany on the paternal side.

Stories that begin, in this country, in the late 1600s. Stories in Germany back to the late 1500s.

Some of them, remarkably, given my family’s tendency never to let the truth get in the way of a good story, may even possibly be true.

And some of the possibly-true ones — that is, the ones I’ve managed to document with something other than the marginal note that one of the family storytellers told me so — had very big milestones in 2015 or will have big milestones here in 2016. Events that were exactly 50 or 100 or 150 or 200 years ago — or more! — during the year.

They are the kinds of milestones that we shouldn’t allow to pass without pausing to reflect.

Looking back

In 2015, for example, we can probably put two critical births into the 250-year milestone category:

• The best available records suggest that my fourth great grandmother Dorothy (Wiseman) Baker was born, most likely in South Carolina, on the 5th of February 1765. Now, of course, there weren’t birth certificates or anything of the kind back then, but Dorothy’s son Josiah kept a family Bible and recorded the birthdates of both of his parents. On the births page, one entry reads: “Dorothy Baker was born Oct. 5th, 1765.”1 Her age is supported both by the 1850 census, where she was enumerated as 85 years old,2 and by her affidavit for a widow’s pension that year in which she said she was 85 years old.3

• The best available evidence also suggests that my fourth great grandfather William Buchanan was born, most likely in Maryland, on 23 August 1765. This date appears in two transcriptions of a Bible, the whereabouts no-one today seems to know. One transcription was contained in an affidavit by Ben Buchanan and Burns Turner, dated 29 January 1931, executed before the Yancey County NC clerk, and reproduced in a Yancey County genealogical journal.4 This affidavit purports to set out a “true and exact copy as appears in the old family Bible of Mrs. Naomi Sparks of Estatoe, NC.” A second transcription of the same Bible was reportedly made by David Stamey of Waynesville, NC, in 1993. The two match in most particulars, including the date of William’s birth. The year is supported by the 1850 census, where he was enumerated as 85 years old.5

In the 100-year milestone category for 2015 we find the World War I casualties for my German family:

• One casualty I’m sure of — my grandfather’s brother Arno Werner Geissler died 22 June 1915 when his unit was in action on the Polish-Galician border.6 The irony was that he was considered basically too old for military — he was in a reserve unit jokingly called the old men.7

• The other casualty isn’t proved 100% yet, but it appears that my grandfather’s brother-in-law Franz Oskar Oettel died in the war as well. Ida Agnes Geissler married Franz Oskar Oettel in Bremen in 1908,8 and he was in the Bremen city directory thereafter from 1909 through 1915.9 But a death was recorded for Franz Oskar Oettel, member of a rifle battalion, on 21 July 1915.10 The record says he died “auf dem Barrenkopf” — an area that was part of the Battle of Le Linge in the spring and summer of 1915. And in 1917, Agnes appeared as a widow in the household of her father back in Gera.11

Looking forward

In the 300-year milestone category for 2016, I absolutely adore the fact that published family histories say that my fifth great grandmother, Dorothy (Davenport) Baker, was born 2 Nov 1716, probably in Virginia.12 And despite the fact that I was an editor on the most recent of those histories, I still don’t have any source information on this — and the one man who said he did have it died in 2013.13 Sigh…

In the 200-year milestone category is the marriage of my fourth great grandparents, Boston Shew and Elizabeth Brewer, in Wilkes, County, North Carolina. Exactly when it occurred, we don’t know — there’s no specific record of the marriage itself. But Boston signed a marriage bond as to his marriage to Elizabeth, with his brother Simon as surety, on 18 September 1816.14 And they lived together thereafter as man and wife until her death sometime after the 1850 census.15

And the marriage of Boston and Elizabeth’s great granddaughter, my grandmother Opal Robertson, falls into the 100-year milestone category in 2016. She and my grandfather Clay Rex Cottrell were married 19 October 1916 in Wichita County, Texas, after Clay — nearly three years too young to marry legally — lied about his age on the marriage license. Crazy kids. The marriage was doomed, of course… they only lasted until his death 54 years later.16

In the 50-year milestone category for 2016 is what may seem like an odd choice. It’s the 50-year anniversary of a divorce. My oldest first cousin, Bobette, secured a divorce from her husband Warren Hopkins on the 15th of August 1966.17 Not all endings are happy, of course, but some can open the door to beginnings: that divorce freed Bobbi to meet… fall in love with … and eventually marry the man who really was the love of her life. Five years later, she and Harold Kent Richardson began a married love story that ended only on his death more than 30 years later.18

Now safety would require that I stop there.

But I’ve never been one for playing it safe.

So I will risk life and limb by pointing out that one sister and two sisters-in-law will hit milestone birthdays in 2016. Nadine (Poludin) Geissler and Kacy (Geissler) St. Clair are littler than I am so I’m not too worried about mentioning that they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of their 10th birthdays

But Carolyn (Schmit) Geissler is pretty close to my size… still, she wouldn’t kill her children’s godmother for putting her in the 50-year milestone category… would she?


  1. Bible Record, Josiah and Julia (McGimsey) Baker Family Bible Records 1749-1912, The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (New York : American Bible Society, 1867), “Births”; privately held by Louise (Baker) Ferguson, Bakersville, NC; photographed for JG Russell, Feb 2003. Mrs. Ferguson, a great granddaughter of Josiah and Julia, inherited the Bible; the earliest entries are believed to be in the handwriting of Josiah or Julia Baker.
  2. 1850 U.S. census, Yancey County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 442(B) (stamped), dwelling 423, family 442, Dorothy Baker; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 649.
  3. Affidavit of claimant, Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Cpl., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 7 Jan 2012), David Baker file.
  4. Affidavit, Ben Buchanan and Burns Turner, 29 January 1931, reproduced in “Buchanan Family Tree,” Families of Yancey County 10: (September 1993) 67.
  5. 1850 U.S. census, Yancey Co., N.C., pop. sched., p. 413 (stamped), dwell. 432, fam. 457, William Buchanan.
  6. Verlust-Liste Nr. 0596 (20 Jul 1915), “World War I Casualty Lists, 1914-1917,” digital image, ( : accessed 27 Jul 2012); citing Deutsche Verlustlisten 1914 bis 1917, Berlin, Deutschland : Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt).
  7. See Judy G. Russell, “Death on the Eastern Front,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 July 2012 ( : accessed 20 Dec 2015).
  8. Bremen Standesamt (City Register) 1908, Nr. 1390, Bd. 3, Heiratsregistereintrag (Marriage Register entry) Oettel-Geissler; “Standesamtsregister,” (City Register), Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
  9. Bremer Adressbuch 1909-1915 (Bremen: Carl Schünemann : 1909-1915); digital images, “Bremer Adressbuch,” Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Bremen ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
  10. Bremen Standesamt (City Register) 1915, Nr. 3334, Bd. 5, Heiratsregistereintrag (Marriage Register entry) Oettel-Geissler; “Standesamtsregister,” (City Register), Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen.
  11. Adreßbuch der Haupt- und Residenzstadt Gera 1917 (Gera City Directory) (Gera: Karl Bauch, 1917), 135, entry for Oettel, Agnes (widow), FriedericiStrasse 3; FHL microfilm 2158076).
  12. See e.g. John Scott Davenport, Judy G. Russell, Linda E. Davenport, The Pamunkey Davenport Papers : The Further Chronicles of the Pamunkey Davenports, CD-ROM (Charles Town, W.Va. : The Pamunkey Davenport Family Association, 2009).
  13. Judy G. Russell, “RIP John Scott Davenport,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Jan 2013 ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
  14. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  15. See 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, p. 6 (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Elizabeth Shew, age 60, b NC; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 3.
  16. Judy G. Russell, “The marriage that would never last,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Oct 2015 ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
  17. Commonwealth of Virginia, State File No. 66-005862, Report of Divorce or Annulment; digital images, “Virginia, Divorce Records, 1918-2014,” ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
  18. Judy G. Russell, “A cousin’s loss and a family’s gain,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 June 2013 ( : accessed 21 Dec 2015).
Posted in My family | 4 Comments

Speaking out in 2016

The Legal Genealogist is quite certain that it will come as a great surprise to everyone out there.

PrintYou would never ever have guessed that … well … I like to talk about genealogy.

I know, I know. Such a shocking revelation.1

Can’t help it — with my most of my family tending to roll their eyes when I even say the word genealogy, I have to have an outlet someplace. And I got hooked on having people laugh at my jokes during all those years of teaching law students.2

Fortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a genealogist, it’s that genealogists like to listen — and learn — and share.

So if you’re of a mind to come out and listen — and learn — and share with me your stories, too, here are some 2016 options: conferences, seminars and lectures where you can find me.


• 11-15: Course coordinator, Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), Salt Lake City
• 24: Burlington County Historical Society, Burlington, NJ
• 30: Mississippi Genealogical Society, Jackson MS


• 3-6: RootsTech, Salt Lake City
• 13: Unlock the Past, Auckland NZ
• 14-3 March: 10th Unlock the Past Cruise, New Zealand & Australia
• 16: Unlock the Past, Wellington NZ
• 20: Unlock the Past, Dunedin NZ
• 24: Unlock the Past, Sydney Australia


• 3: Unlock the Past, Perth Australia
• 5: Unlock the Past, Brisbane Australia
• 12: DuPage County Genealogical Society, Naperville IL
• 16: Legacy Family Tree webinar, “The Private Laws of the Federal and State Governments”
• 18-19: Family History Society of Arizona, Scottsdale & Phoenix AZ
• 26: Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, MD


• 2: Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Huntsville AL
• 8-9: Wisconsin State Genealogical Society, Wausau WI
• 16: Sonoma County Genealogical Society, Santa Rosa CA
• 30: Orange County Genealogical Society, Goshen NY


• 4-7: NGS 2016 Conference, Fort Lauderdale FL
• 22: Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island, Plainview NY


• 3-5: Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto, Canada
• 12-17: Course coordinator, Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), Birmingham AL
• 26-1 July: Course coordinator, Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), Pittsburgh PA


• 9: Victoria County Genealogical Society, Victoria TX
• 12-14: Midwestern African American Genealogical Institute, Fort Wayne IN
• 23: East Baton Rouge Parish Library, Baton Rouge LA


• 1-5: Lecturer, “Researching Family in Pennsylvania” course, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA
• 6: Kentucky Genealogical Society, Frankfort KY
• 7-12: 2016 IAJGS Conference, Seattle WA
• 20: Willard Library, Evansville IN
• 31-3 Sep: FGS 2016 Conference, Springfield IL


• 14: Legacy Family Tree webinar, “The Treasure Trove in Legislative Petitions”
• 17: Maine Genealogical Society
• 22-24: Montana State Genealogical Society, Missoula MT
• 26-28: Rogue Valley Genealogical Society, Medford OR


• 1: Florida Genealogical Society (Tampa), Tampa FL
• 15: Ventura County Genealogical Society, Camarillo CA
• 16: Jewish Genealogical Society – JGSCV, California
• 22: Wilson-Cobb History and Genealogy Library, Roswell NM
• 28-30: Texas State Genealogical Society


• 3: German Genealogy Group, Hicksville NY
• 5: Delaware State Archives, Dover DE
• 12: Bucks County Ancestry Fair, Bucks County PA


• Home? Really? COOL!


  1. Yes, indeed, my tongue really is sticking so deeply into my cheek that my ear is in danger…
  2. No comments, please, about the possibility that they laughed only because I got to grade them at the end of the semester.
Posted in General | 15 Comments

To the hosts and more of the past year

Is it possible…?

Can it be…?

Is it really the 31st of December? The very last day of 2015?

oct_06_2015_06New Year’s Eve.


Looking back on a whirlwind year, it’s clear that I’ve had the chance this year to meet folks from a wide variety of genealogical societies — large and small — and have simply had a ball.

I’ve learned from each and every one of them. I’ve had chances to laugh — and sometimes to share a tear.

I’ve been taught about resources I hadn’t seen before, and given chances to advance my own research.

I’ve met cousins — some of whom I hadn’t even known I had.

It’s been a wonderful year. So it can’t end without a heartfelt thank you to so many people who’ve made it the year it’s been, including each and every single one of my 2015 hosts:

Association of Professional Genealogists, PMC & webinar
Austin (TX) Genealogical Society
Bucks County (PA) Genealogical Society
Detroit Public Library, Family History Festival
Fairfax County (VA) Genealogical Society
Federation of Genealogical Societies, conference & cruise
Florida Genealogical Society (Tampa), webinar
Florida State Genealogical Society, webinar
Georgia Genealogical Society, conference & webinar
German Genealogy Group, Hicksville, NY
Green Valley (AZ) Genealogical Society
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Houston (TX) Genealogical Forum
Hudson County (NJ) Genealogical & Historical Society
Indiana Genealogical Society
Indiana State Library Genealogy Fair
Irish Family History Forum, Long Island, NY
Jewish Genealogical Society, New York, NY
Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington, Washington D.C.
Legacy Family Tree webinars, and host Geoff Rasmussen who makes things easy
Louisville (KY) Genealogical Society
Missouri State Genealogical Association
Monmouth County (NJ) Genealogical Society
National Genealogical Society
NERGC 2015, Providence RI
New York State Family History Conference
North Carolina Genealogical Society, webinar
North Hills Genealogists, Wexford, PA
North San Diego County (CA) Genealogical Society
Ohio Genealogical Society
Oklahoma Genealogical Society
Reneau Family Association, Lowndes County MS
SCGS Jamboree and Family History & DNA
Stillaguamish Valley (WA) Genealogical Society
The Villages (FL) Genealogical Society
Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society

Now if anybody asks me why local societies are dying on the vine, I may ask what that person is smoking… because I sure don’t see dying societies in my travels. These groups are dynamic, growing, thriving, looking for ways to stay up on all the new information and techniques and records that are becoming more readily available and on how to apply tried and true methodologies to them.

I am so proud and thankful that I was allowed to be part of their programs this past year, and hope to be invited back — often!

A huge thank-you also goes to the institutes where I was privileged to teach in 2015, and to the students I was privileged to teach and to learn from. At the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), in January, Rick Sayre and I coordinated the Family History Law Library course. At the Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) at Samford University, in June, I was particularly privileged to serve as coordinator of the Advanced Methodology & Evidence Analysis course, following in the footsteps of my friend and mentor, Elizabeth Shown Mills. And at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP), in July, Rick Sayre and I coordinated the Law School for Genealogists course. And thanks to the other coordinators who let me come play in their classes at these institutes and at the Midwestern African American Genealogy Institute.

Now if I tried to list all the individuals who went out of their way to make things not just easy but wonderful and fun, I’d still be writing at the end of 2016. But I can’t end without singling out one person in particular who went above and beyond — and then some.

When I was headed to Houston, Texas, in March, to speak to the Houston Genealogical Forum, Marilyn Maniscalco Henley knew how very badly I wanted to get out into the counties nearby to research my mother’s family. My grandmother was born in Colorado County; her father, my great grandfather, had been a prison camp guard there; my scoundrel second great grandfather on my grandfather’s side had gotten himself into trouble with the law there and in next-door Wharton County. Doing everything I wanted to do posed logistical problems I didn’t think I could solve.

And I didn’t have to.

Marilyn stepped in and she didn’t just set it up for me to do the research: she figured out where all the libraries, archives and courthouses were, arranged hotel accommodations and served as my personal tour guide and driver so I could focus on getting the research done. It was one of the nicest research experiences I’ve ever had — and I am so very grateful.

And to you, the readers of this blog… what can I say but thank you? You’ve challenged me, taught me, laughed with me, cried with me.

Good year. Good good year. Good friends — old and new, and good fun.


Posted in General | 9 Comments