Sunday, January 29, 2012

Black Family History Day, February 11, 2012

The African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC) and the Oakland Family History Center will host another Black Family History Day in celebration of Black History Month.  The event will take place Saturday, February 11, from 1:00-5:00 p.m. at the Oakland Regional Family History Center, 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, CA 94602.   It is free and open to the public.  Feel free to bring a family member or a friend with you!  Everyone is welcome, but AAGSNC is requesting that attendees register online beforehand.

Volunteer genealogists (including me) will again be available to answer genealogy questions and provide individual research assistance.  A free DNA test kit will be given to each attendee.  I was told that a speaker will give a presentation about DNA twice during the afternoon, but there is no information on the AAGSNC site about that.  Perhaps it will be posted soon.

For more information, call (877) 884-2843 or send a message.

New Site for Lost U.S. Submariners

Did anyone in your family serve on a submarine in the U.S. Navy?  A Web site called "On Eternal Patrol" has been created to honor men lost while serving in the U.S. Submarine Force.  The site includes listings of men and boats by era and a full name index containing more than 4,100 individuals for whom memorial pages have been posted.  Passengers on submarines that were sunk are included also.

The creators of the site are currently seeking additional photos from family members to round out the history of 3,600 U.S. submariners lost during World War II.  The point of contact is (formerly at, or you can visit the submission page.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Free Access to Lincoln Archives Digital Project through Memorial Day

I have posted before about the Lincoln Archives Digital Project.  The project is trying to digitize all federal records housed within the National Archives which were created during Abraham Lincoln's administration -- from November 1860, after Lincoln's election, to April 15, 1865, the date of his death.  Additional records to be digitized include those involved with the assassination; the capture, trial, and executions of the conspirators; the capture and imprisonment of Jefferson Davis; and the capture and trial of John Surratt.

The Lincoln Archives Digital Project is giving free access to the collection through May 28, 2012.  The site includes records and indices related to prisoners of war, the slave trade, court martials, and Lincoln's assassination, plus photographs, political cartoons, maps, and newspapers.  The site is very much still a work in progress, and a few records are scattered through different sections.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Label Those Photographs (and Check Your Information)

When I talk to people who are beginning their family history research, I often suggest one of the first things they should do is try to find out who is in any old photographs and to label the photographs with who is in them, when and where they were taken, and any event associated with the photo.  Once older members of the family have passed away, many people are left with boxes of photos and no one left who recognizes anyone in them.  But it's also good to verify information as much as possible.

On December 7, 2011, MSNBC posted a photo online of four women holding a firehose.  The photo was labeled as showing four women fighting fires after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as per information from the Getty Images collection, but did not give the names of the women.  MSNBC asked if anyone could identify them.  A reader contacted a writer and former librarian who had planned to write a book about the lives of women during World War II, and she was able to find the photo within minutes in the Hawaii War Records Depository.  The entry gave the names of the four women and didn't say anything about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The next photo in the online archive showed the same four women obviously on the same day, wearing the same clothes, but in a less dramatic pose.  MSNBC posted a follow-up on December 12; they tracked down the lone surviving woman of the four (she is now 96 years old), who explained they were being trained to use the firehoses but were not doing so on December 7.

Now, this particular photograph generated a lot of controversy, and some people claimed it was a fraud.  While it is unlikely your family photographs will create that kind of situation, it is possible some family members will disagree about who is in a photo or when it was taken.  Rather than taking sides, try to find out as much information as you can and talk to as many relatives as possible.  Then analyze the information and come to a conclusion, and share your reasoning with everyone.  You may still have some disagreements, but at least everyone will know how you came up with the answer you did.

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, January 23, 2012

Exhibit of World War II Jewish Partisan Photographs

"Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photographs of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman" is a thirty-panel exhibit of photographs taken during World War II by Jewish partisan Schulman. The exhibit is currently on display at Temple Sinai, 28th and Webster streets, Oakland, California, and runs through February 28, 2012.

In conjunction with the exhibit, there will be a presentation on Thursday, February 26:  "The Courage to Act:  Conversations with Men and Women of the Resistance and Their Families."  The program runs from 7:00-9:00 p.m. and includes the screening of a short film.

Admission is free.  For more information contact

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Restoration of Some Burned Military Records

One of the more frustrating record losses affecting 20th-century U.S. research is the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that burned 80% of enlisted Army personnel records from 1957 back through World War I and earlier.  There has been no real substitute for the records, though a soldier's career can be pieced together somewhat with morning reports, as long as you know the unit he was in.  The loss of records affected not only research, but the ability of veterans to prove their service and obtain benefits.

An article from January 1, 2012 discusses restoration work being done on these records at the NPRC.  Of the approximately 6.5 million records that were damanged in the fire, so far about 15,000-20,000 records have been fully treated, which is admittedly only a small fraction.  Even the archivists in St. Louis concede that the restoration work will not be finished in their lifetimes.  But every piece of paper restored recovers more information and makes it available to researchers and veterans.

My thanks to Jan Meisels Allen for posting about this article.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grand Opening of the New Magnes Museum

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life will open the doors of its new museum to the public on Sunday, January 22, 2012, at the museum's new home, 2121 Allston Way (between Shattuck and Oxford), Berkeley, California.  Attendees will be able to view the opening exhibitions and the glass-wall open storage, and learn about the role of the Magnes at UC Berkeley.  Curators, artists, and staff will be available to talk with attendees.

The event will run from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m.  Festivities will include:

12:00 Ribbon cutting ceremony with UC Berkeley marching band
12:30 Kol Hadov, UC Berkeley Jewish student a cappella group
1:00 Za'atar, Mizrahi ensemble
2:00 Veretski Pass: Music from the Carpathian Bow
3:00 Octopretzel Family Musical Hour

Admission is free and everyone is welcome.

For more information visit the Magnes Web site.  The Magnes Museum also has a Facebook page at

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, January 16, 2012

Predictions for Season Three of "Who Do You Think You Are?"

The celebrities for the new season of Who Do You Think You Are? have been announced.  NBC has a press release listing the celebrities and mentioned something I haven't seen in print before:  that helps produce the program. I don't know if that means they're coming clean or are now using it for marketing.

I was looking at the list of celebrities and started trying to figure out what we could anticipate this season in the way of research.  One of the first things I noticed is that they've lengthened the series significantly.  The first season had seven episodes, the second season had eight; this season has twelve celebrities.  So the program is obviously doing well with market share and advertisers.

Then I started breaking down the list of celebrities and comparing it to previous seasons.  The producers have established somewhat of a formula already.  In the first two seasons we had two episodes about black ancestry (Spike Lee and Emmitt Smith in season 1; Lionel Richie and Vanessa Williams in season 2), one about Jewish (Lisa Kudrow; Gwyneth Paltrow), and one about a scandal (Susan Sarandon; Kim Cattrall).  Then, more broadly, we visited other countries (Italy with Brooke Shields, Ireland with Rosie O'Donnell, and Barbados with Gwyneth Paltrow).  Those celebrities whose families had been in this country for several generations were connected with important historical events and people such as the American Civil War (Matthew Broderick, Steve Buscemi, Ashley Judd), the California Gold Rush (Sarah Jessica Parker), the Salem witch trials (Sarah Jessica Parker), the Pilgrims (Ashley Judd), and George Washington (Tim McGraw).

So looking at this year's list, our two episodes about black ancestry should be Jerome Bettis and Blair Underwood, and Jewish will probably be Rashida Jones, because her mother is Jewish.  Jones' father is black, but we've covered the black episodes already.  One of those three episodes should take us to Cameroon, according to the press release.  Helen Hunt had a Jewish grandmother, so they might have two episodes that touch on Jewish ancestry, but I think Jones will be the primary celebrity in that slot.

Without the research, there's no way to know who might have a scandal in the family.  It'll again be someone who has a strong personality and is willing to take on that kind of subject.  Rob Lowe has had his own scandals and managed to come through them fairly well, so he's my best guess.

In the press release the producers are quoted as saying that the new season will "take us to countries we haven't visited before."  Rita Wilson is half Bulgarian and half Greek, and the press release mentions Bulgaria, so that matches up.  Martin Sheen is half Irish and half Spanish; "Ireland's freedom fighters" were mentioned in the press release, and his mother is said to have IRA connections, so that should be part of his episode.  They couldn't find a good story in Spain?  His father is said to have come to the U.S. through Cuba, but they probably couldn't go there for the program.  Jason Sudeikis is Lithuanian on his father's side of the family, so that would be an interesting possibility for a new country to visit.  (Sudeikis' uncle is George Wendt [of Cheers fame], so they might try to work that into his episode.)

Marisa Tomei is Italian-American; Edie Falco has Italian and Swedish ancestry.  Along with her German Jewish grandmother, Helen Hunt had a grandfather who was born in England.  Their stories could possibly focus on ancestral countries or immigrant experiences, or maybe maybe historic events such as World War I.  Reba McEntire and Paula Deen's families, and Hunt's other lines, probably have been in the U.S. for many generations, so I expect their episodes to talk about how their ancestors were part of significant events in American history.

Well, those are my predictions.  We'll have to wait and see how accurate I am.  The new season begins Friday, February 3 at 8:00 p.m. on NBC.  Whether I'm right or wrong, I look forward to watching.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Are you ready for the 1940 census?

Can you feel the excitement in the air?  It's been ten years since genealogists have had a new U.S. census to play with.  On April 2, 2012, less than three months from now, the 1940 census will be released to the public, and everyone is rarin' to go.  It will already be digital, so there won't be a delay while everything is being scanned, and it will be available on several genealogy sites.

But there's a catch.  The 1940 census has absolutely no index.  At least with 1930 some of the states had been indexed during WPA.  This time we all start from scratch.  How will we find the people we're looking for?

Enter Steve Morse and Joel Weintraub.  They have been working for several years on finding aids for the 1940 census, and over the past couple of years have been speaking to many genealogical societies about the tools that are available on the Steve Morse One-Step Website.

In the San Francisco Bay area, we're fortunate to have Steve Morse as a resident.  He is also a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (SFBAJGS).  And he was generous enough to allow us to schedule him to speak about the 1940 census at all three of our meeting locations.  First up is Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, on January 22.  The doors will open at 1:00 p.m., and the talk will begin at 1:30.  This is a new location and time for our San Francisco meetings.  One of the rules of the new venue is that no outside food or drink may be brought in.

On February 12 Steve will give his 1940 census talk at the Oakland Family History Center.  The doors will open at 12:30 p.m., and the talk will begin at 1:00.   We also get a bonus in Oakland.  Steve will be premiering a new talk about the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract.

And on February 13, Steve will be in Los Altos Hills at Congregation Beth Am.  There the doors open at 7:00 p.m., and the talk begins at 7:30.

For more details about the SFBAJGS meetings, visit our calendar at  To see where else Steve Morse will be speaking, look at his schedule (at the bottom of the page).  Unsurprisingly, most of his 2012 talks so far are on the 1940 census.

Happy Blogiversary to Me!

I've made it through my first year of blogging!  I am surprised at how quickly the time has passed.  I wouldn't have been able to do it without support from friends such as Thomas Macentee, Carol Townsend, and Craig Siulinski, who have given me lots of advice and moral support.  I looked and discovered I had 175 posts, so I posted on average almost every two days, a lot more than I had realized.  I have appreciated all the comments from people who have posted on my blog, and I'm happy to have been able to share some of my passion for genealogy during this past year.  I look forward to another year full of family history.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Research Intern for a Feature Documentary

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker whose films have premiered on several networks, including HBO.  She is working on a family feature documentary and is looking for a research intern, preferably someone with an affinity for genealogy. This unpaid internship is a good opportunity for someone who wants to be involved in the film business and work with a highly creative team.  The position could possibly lead to something more promising down the road.  If you or someone you know might be a good fit, contact Gayle and include a resume or bio if you have one.  Gayle's production company is based in Manhattan, but it does not matter where the researcher is, as the work can be done remotely.

** This internship is no longer available.  Please do not try to contact Kirschenbaum regarding it. **

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jewish Alaska?

According to an article in the current issue of Moment magazine, Alaska is "That Great Big Jewish Land."  Jews apparently have had a strong influence in the development of the state and its admission to the union, and are significantly prominent in commercial and public life.  They were some of the first non-native settlers in the area.  From their ranks came people as diverse as the state's first postmistresses, the longest-serving territorial governor (and the man who pushed for statehood), and 20% of the state's judges in 1995.  Someone has even written an alternate-history novel that contemplates what Alaska might have been like had plans to make Alaska a haven for people fleeing the Holocaust been successful.

Who knew?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A New Perspective on Heir Research

A lot of the family history research I do is heir research -- looking for people who are eligible for some sort of inheritance.  This might be because they are direct heirs of someone who died without a will, or because they are descendants of someone who was left a bequest in a will.  Until recently, my part in this has been to do the research, find documents, connect the dots, and look for contact information for these people, then give the results to my client.  He then contacts the potential heirs, explains the circumstances, and follows through with whatever legal requirements there may be.

The age of mobile phones, however, has put a kink in this process.  Many people nowadays have given up landlines and have only mobile phones, which are not listed routinely in directories.  So more and more often I can find an address for a person I believe to be an heir, but I cannot find a telephone number.  The primary client for whom I do heir research strongly prefers a personal contact, usually by telephone, before he mails information.

I have been working on a project recently that had this situation come up.  I had tracked two of the three heirs, but I had only addresses.  I had exhausted the resources available to me and simply couldn't find any phone numbers.  One of the people lives an hour away from me.  So my client asked me to drive down and speak to her in person!

Considering how publicized inheritance scams are these days, I wasn't sure what type of reception I was going to get.  When I rang the doorbell, dogs started barking very loudly and rushed to the door.  Soon a man opened the door just a crack and asked what I wanted.  I told him who I was looking for, giving her maiden name and married name, and said it was about a possible inheritance.  He looked very suspicious but let me in.  The dogs immediately swarmed me, but I discovered quickly they were more bark than bite, and I love dogs anyway.  I think the fact that they obviously liked me helped a little.

The man went to get his wife, and I gave her a quick explanation of the family connections and inheritances that had led me to contact her.  She was amazed that she could be inheriting anything but confirmed that all of the research was accurate.  Then she was curious about how I had actually managed to find her.  I told her a little of the process and how one piece of information led to another and eventually to her home address.  I gave her contact information for my client and let her know what information he needed, and soon left.

As a contract researcher, I work on the periphery of these cases.  I primarily deal with computers and paperwork, and then funnel the information I find to someone else.  It is easy to forget that what I do relates to living people.  It was enjoyable to step outside of my normal role for once and be able to put a face on my research.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Field Trip to University of the Pacific

Muir in Hetch Hetchy Valley, 1895
This past Thursday the Northern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists took a field trip (arranged by Sheri Fenley, who unfortunately was not able to attend) to the Holt-Atherton Special Collections at the University of the Pacific Library in Stockton.  Archivist Michael Wurtz gave us a tour and overview of the collections.  Two of the more significant collections at the library are the John Muir Papers, the largest collection of Muir documents in the world; and the Brubeck Collection, the archives of jazz musician Dave Brubeck.  Other collections are Japanese American Internment documents; the University Archives; and Western Americana, which encompasses more than 400 collections, including the Spooner Collection of California stereographs taken between 1875-1905.

Mr. Wurtz showed a PowerPoint presentation about the Stockton State Hospital, formerly known as the Stockton Insane Asylum.  Under various names, it was in operation from 1851-1996.  Researching the hospital has become a project of Mr. Wurtz's since he found information about it in the archives.  The archive has annual reports for the hospital from 1869-1928.  The reports include tables for such things as causes of death and causes of insanity (such as a lost love).

One historical incident connected to the hospital was an 1857 duel between Dr. Washington Ryer and Dr. Samuel Langdon, who disagreed not only about some hospital policies but also about slavery (Ryer was an abolitionist, while Langdon was pro slavery).  By amazing coincidence, I had recently watched a repeat episode of History Detectives where the pistols used in that duel were discussed.  In 1859 the same pistols were used in the duel between U.S. Senator David Broderick and former Chief Justice David Terry.  The latter duel was also caused by a difference of opinion on slavery.  The pistols were owned by a Dr. Aylette, a friend of both Langdon and Terry.  I always find it interesting to see how apparently unrelated events are linked.

After the PowerPoint presentation Mr. Wurtz passed around some sample items he had pulled from the archive.  What captured our interest the most was a box of "mug shot" books from the San Joaquin County Sheriff's office, dating from about 1877-1899.  There are about thirteen books of photographs (totaling about 7,500 photos), almost all of them with names, many of them with numbers, which we guessed were either case or prisoner numbers.  Some men served time in San Quentin, Folsom, and San Francisco, and one person had a number listed for Walla Walla.  Some abbreviations we couldn't decipher (H.B. and H.C. among them).  One book had sections for where the people were from:  Oakland, Solano County, foreign countries.  A few people are noted as being dead.  The vast majority of the photos were of white men, with several Hispanic men; we noted about a dozen white women, a dozen black men, half a dozen Chinese men, and one black woman.

Many of the archive's holdings have been digitized and can be viewed online.  After our fascination with the mug shot books, there are now plans to put the name index for the photos online also.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

More Orphan Heirlooms Have Gone Home

A friend of mine bought a box of papers at an estate sale and found two copies of a boy's birth registration (one from the city, one from the hospital in which he was born) and a bar mitzvah photo of the same boy.  She is Jewish also and felt obligated to return the items to the family if possible, so she called and asked if I could help.  The research involved relatively recent records -- this person was born in 1947 -- so I wasn't sure what I would be able to find.  Luckily not everything has been locked up due to politicians' oversimplistic and misguided attempts to curb identify theft, and I was able to verify that he had indeed been born in California, as the birth registrations said.  A little more searching and I discovered a photo of him online.  Someone had posted a positive Yelp-type review of him for his job in San Francisco.  It was the same person as the bar mitzvah boy in the photo; the resemblance was unmistakable.  I called the company, and he still works there.  I've mailed the birth records and photo to him.

I'm not entirely sure why I feel so sad when photographs and documents have been left behind in estate sales and the like.  In part it's because to me they represent the stories of people's lives, and once they are set adrift they no longer have the same context.  But if absolutely no one in the family wants the items, perhaps they could be donated to a genealogical or historical society.  There they can be appreciated and remembered as artifacts of lives that have been lived.  They can be catalogued and available to people researching those families.  They don't become generic nameless people with no histories.