Thursday, July 31, 2014

More IAJGS Conference: Days 3 and 4

I'm still here at the IAJGS conference, and I am happy to report that I had much better luck starting on Tuesday with the sessions I attended.  There were still a couple of duds, but nothing like the disasters of the beginning of the conference.

Some of the presentations have been particularly good.  The standout for me on Tuesday was Jane Neff Rollins, who spoke about finding and using labor union documents for genealogy research.  My great-grandfather was in unions and supported them, plus my aunt's uncle (I do research for family members also) was prominent in his union.  Rollins gave an excellent overview of several types of records that possibly could be found, but it will depend on the specific union and what records it saved.  I would be thrilled to find my great-grandfather in union membership lists, meeting minutes, photographs, or a conference agenda, which are just some of the items that were suggested.  Of course, one of the difficult things is finding where these records might be held, but the University of Connecticut has a page with links to several labor archives around the country.  Those are not the only places union documents might be, but they're good places to start.

Another interesting talk on Tuesday was the story of a Jewish man in Russian Latvia who helped fight for Latvian independence but ended up dying in a Latvian prison during World War II.  Not only did the speaker, Eric Benjaminson, explain several of the more unusual documents that he obtained regarding his cousin's history, he also tried to present a plausible perspective of the Latvians who helped this process along its way.  While that part of his talk was obviously conjecture, I have not seen that included in a presentation before.  He was trying to give a broader view of the history.  His ability to look at the other side's perspective might be related to his thirty years of experience as a diplomat.

I also heard a great talk from Vivian Kahn about 2,000 years of Jewish history in Hungary.  The only disappointment on Tuesday was a lecture by someone whose point seemed to be less to transmit information than to share his anger.  I decided I didn't want to be angry all day also and left early.

Wednesday was not quite at the same level as Tuesday but still informative.  The most useful presentation was about researching Canadian family from outside Canada.  Marion Werle talked a little about the history of Jewish immigration into Canada and then covered a broad range of records that exist, including all the normal ones plus some others, such as colonization records and 1940 national registrations.  Not all of them are actually available to people outside Canada (unless they are Canadian citizens), but she even suggested some ways to deal with that restriction.  She also listed sites on which many records can be found.

It wasn't a presentation, but I led a very productive meeting of Jewish genealogical society newsletter editors.  One of my volunteer positions is IAJGS communications chairman, and the main responsibility is working with the newsletter editors.  This past year I unfortunately was not able to keep up with that as well as I would have liked, but I was really inspired by some of the ideas suggested at the meeting.  One idea I hope to implement is making sure that all newsletters and journals have an index of articles published over the publication's history, possibly hosted on the IAJGS Web site.  Too many genealogy articles don't get enough publicity and disappear too soon, and an article index would help prevent that wealth of information from being forgotten.

I spent a few hours in the resource room on Wednesday searching in ProQuest historical and newspaper databases.  On one day of the conference ProQuest allows access to the databases, most of which are not available as personal subscriptions.  The resource room is usually packed on ProQuest day, with a line waiting at the door.  I don't know what happened, but I never saw a line and the room was never full.  On the other hand, I found very few articles, so maybe I'm not the only who has mined those databases pretty thoroughly already.  But it's still great that we have access for a day.

The other presentation I heard on Wednesday was by Rose Feldman of the Israel Genealogy Research Association.  She spoke about the Jewish Legion and other Jews in Eretz Israel (Palestine) during World War I and a little later.  IGRA researchers have been trying to locate as many documents as possible that document the participation of Jews in Palestine during the war.  They are still discovering documents in unexpected archives but hope to find even more,

Looking forward to two more days of conference, and then some research at the Family History Library before I head back to California!

Earlier commentary on the conference:
Days 1 and 2

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wordless Wednesday

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Cynthia Nixon

This past Wednesday the new season of Who Do You Think You Are? began.  I had been planning on posting my predictions before the first episode, but I ran into a couple of problems.  First of all, I hadn’t even heard of four of the celebrities!  Three of them I seem to be a little too old for, and I’ve never watched Sex and the City so had no idea who Cynthia Nixon was.  The other problem is that younger celebrities tend to have less information available online on which to base educated guesses.  The only prediction I could come up with was that most of the travel would probably be in the United States, because TLC doesn’t have the budget NBC does.  I say “most” because Kelsey Grammer wasn’t born in the U.S., so I suspect his episode will take us overseas somewhere.  Other than that, I’m at a loss.  We no longer appear to have our basic formula of one Jewish and one black celebrity — everyone this year seems to be white and WASPy.  But who knows what revelations await us?

So the first episode was about Cynthia Nixon, who is best known for her work as Miranda Hobbs in Sex and the City in its different incarnations.  She is an Emmy and Tony award winner, so some good stage work must be in there also.  She tends to play strong female characters and supports various causes, with GLAAD and marriage equality being specifically mentioned.  She lives with her wife Christine Marinoni and their children in New York City.

Nixon’s parents, Ann Elizabeth Knoll and Walter E. Nixon, Jr., separated when she was 6.  She knows quite a bit about her mother’s side of the family but little about her father’s side, as she saw him rarely when she was growing up.  She knows his father’s name was Walter Elmer Nixon (Sr.?), and that the elder Walter’s father was Samuel F. Nixon.  (Maybe she'll find out she's related to Richard Nixon??)

Nixon’s first step is to visit the New York Historical Society (logical, since she lives in New York City), where she meets with professional genealogist Joseph Shumway.  (We’ve seen him before assisting Christina Applegate, Steve Buscemi, and Blair Underwood. acquired him and his services when it bought, now its in-house research team.)  Shumway starts their meeting by unrolling an already-prepared calligraphed scroll with Nixon’s ancestors listed (shades of D. Joshua Taylor again).  Nixon learns that her grandmother was Margaret J. Eaton and that Samuel Nixon was married to Mary M. (with no maiden name).  She wonders if she’ll be able to learn Mary’s maiden name and maybe her parents’ names, and Shumway assures her that this was just the initial information and that he had continued to look for more.  He then shows her Mary’s death certificate, which states she was born in Missouri:  father unknown, mother Martha Curnutt.  What?  Why didn’t they know her father’s name?

Shumway suggests they look on (one of the earliest appearances in an episode, I believe) for a marriage for Martha.  Nixon enters Martha Curnutt (why don’t they teach the celebrities that capitalization isn’t necessary?), and she finds a marriage to Noah Casto on August 15, 1839.  Shumway then has Nixon search for Martha Casto in the 1850 census (why not look for Noah in 1840 instead of jumping ahead more than 10 years?), but she doesn’t find anyone.  He then “suggests” she look for Martha Curnutt, and amazingly enough, we find Martha in Cole, Missouri.  The household includes John Curnutt, who is of an age to be appropriate as Martha’s father, and three Curnutt children (Mary, 10; Noah, 7; and Sarah, 6), who could be Martha’s.  Nixon assumes the children are Casto's and wants to know why they don’t have Casto as a last name and where Noah the husband is.  Shumway says that divorce was not common in that period but did happen, and that some records still exist that could be checked.

Something that should have been explicitly discussed while they were looking at this census is that family relationships are not stated (they don’t appear in the federal census until 1880).  The children need not have been Martha’s.  They could have been children of a brother, foundlings whom the family had taken in, or even John’s children.  It’s perfectly fine to make the hypothesis that they’re Martha’s children and that John is Martha’s father, but make it clear that it’s a working hypothesis!  Then look for records to see if the hypothesis is correct.

Then Shumway comes up with something that’s totally out of left field, at least based on my logic.  He tells Nixon that he always looks for information related to the Civil War.  But why does he bring it up now?  We’ve only looked at a marriage in 1839 and the 1850 census.  We haven’t even found the family in 1860, just prior to the beginning of the Civil War.  Ok, we know why — because the Ancestry research team found a record.  But this was an incredibly heavy-handed way to introduce the information.  I felt like I was riding in a car that had just veered off the highway.

That said, Shumway starts talking about pensions and how they can help prove family history.  My first thought was that Noah Sr. had served and maybe Martha had filed for pension benefits based on his service.  But no, Shumway talks about Noah Jr. and how Nixon might want to check to see if he had served, as he would have been 18 years old when the war began in 1861, and there probably would be a lot of detail about the family.  (In a court case, this would probably be classified as a leading question.)

Nixon asks if she should try it now.  Shumway tells her to go to Ancestry under military and look for Noah Curnutt.  She finds an image of an index card for a pension application under Martha's name, filed on July 22, 1881.  Shumway explains that the fact it’s a mother’s pension suggests Noah had been the financial support of the family and that he had died.  He tells Nixon that the pension file is available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and that should be her next stop.

In the interlude segment, Nixon says she is intrigued by what she has learned so far.  Martha using her maiden name and the children also using it make her wonder what happened to Noah Casto.

Nixon's first trip is indeed to Washington.  Nixon meets with historical researcher Vonnie Zullo in the main building of the National Archives.  (We've seen Zullo previously also; she worked with Kelly Clarkson.)  Zullo has the pension application file for Martha Curnutt, filed July 22, 1881.  Martha was 61 years old and living in Calhoun, Missouri.  She had stated she was the mother of Noah S. Curnutt, who had died while serving in the Civil War.  The file also contains the information that Noah Casto had died in 1842.  This made me immediately think again about the ages of those children in the 1850 census and how accurate they might have been.  Whether Nixon had thought of this herself we will never know, but at least on air she commented that Noah had been born about 1843 and Sarah about 1844.  While it is possible that Martha could have been pregnant with Noah the younger when Noah the elder died, the numbers just don’t add up for Sarah, who doesn’t seem to have been Noah Casto’s daughter.  Zullo tells Nixon that she can find local records about individuals at the Missouri state archives.

As she leaves the National Archives building, Nixon says how awful it must have been for Martha with her husband dying early and then her son dying.  She wonders what happened to Casto and just who Sarah is. (Wondering about Sarah's identity is a very legitimate question at this point, given what we've seen.)

Nixon now travels to the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Waiting to see her there is Donna Schuele (credited as a historian, not a professor, at the University of California at Irvine, because even though she has a Ph.D. she is a lecturer, not a regular faculty member).  She has documents ready for Nixon to view.  They are court documents for the case of the State of Missouri versus Martha Casto/Curnutt with a charge of murder in July 1843.  The court found the defendant guilty of manslaughter in the 1st degree.  The court documents, however, do not give specifics of the killing itself.

A history of Barry County, Missouri, does discuss the “Castoe” murder (remember, spelling is inconsistent until well into the 20th century).  Apparently Martha used an axe to kill her husband in 1843 while he was sleeping.  Schuele and Nixon agree that sounds like murder, not manslaughter.  Schuele offers that reducing the charge to manslaughter could have been a way of avoiding a sentence of execution, which would have been extremely rare for a woman in that period, and which a jury would probably have been reluctant to give.

The conversation turns back to Sarah for a moment.  Since it appeared that Noah Casto had actually died in 1843, not 1842, Sarah could have been his daughter, depending on the timing.  The article in the Barry County book also mentions that Martha was only the second female inmate in the state penitentiary (not a great way to make a name for yourself in history).

Nixon wonders why Martha would have killed her husband and asks if the story might have been in the newspaper.  (Duh!  If it bleeds, it leads!  The story about Noah Casto's murder was actually carried as far away as the Bridgeport, Connecticut Republican Farmer of August 1, 1843.)  Schuele tells her that newspapers and personal records might be available at the state historical society and suggests she go there next.  Before Nixon leaves, the two women return to the subject of Sarah.  If Noah Casto was murdered in 1843, did Martha give birth to Sarah while she was in the penitentiary?  Did she kill Casto while she was pregnant?

Nixon seems a little disconcerted by this round of information.  She talks about how it’s hard to reconcile the idea of killing someone close to you.  (I guess she doesn’t know that the vast majority of people are killed by someone close to them?)

Our next location is the State Historical Society of Missouri, in Columbia.  Wendy Gamber, a professor of history at Indiana University (isn't there anyone in Missouri who specializes in Missouri history?), has found an index card that mentions Martha’s name as appearing in the Jefferson Inquirer in July 1843.  She helps Nixon maneuver microfilm of the newspaper (which does not appear to be available online, or at least not on Newspaper Archive, GenealogyBank, Chronicling America,, or any link from the Wikipedia newspaper archives page).  The murder occurred on July 10, so Nixon scrolls forward from there a couple of issues (it was the weekly paper) and in the July 20 issue finds a story with a lead-in of "Horrible!" right before they cut to a commercial.  When we return to the episode, Nixon begins reading the article.  Particularly pertinent are the information that Casto was in the “habit of treating his wife in a manner too brutal and too shocking to think of” and a description of him as an “unnatural husband.”  Gamber says that these descriptions might be somewhat coded ways to say that Casto could have been a sexual deviant or tortured his wife, as these types of things were not openly discussed in the mid-19th century.  (On the other hand, they might not be coded; we'll probably never know.)  Whatever he was doing, Casto does not seem to have been a very nice guy.  After she had killed Casto, Martha told a neighbor what she had done and said that he had threatened to kill her, which she was certain he would have.  The article also mentions that Martha had two children.

The narrator then gave us a short piece about couverture.  Married women in the United States were essentially stripped of their rights and became extensions of their husbands.  Anything a woman owned when she married became her husband's; he had the legal right to punish his wife physically.

Nixon now wants to know if there are prison records that could tell her more about Martha and Sarah.  Gamber tells her she should visit the Missouri State Penitentiary, which closed in 2004, and that somebody there might be able to help her.

As she departs the historical society, Nixon talks about how awful it was for Martha to endure everything that happened to her and that this story did not have a happy ending.  Martha must have felt that it was better to kill Casto and that his behavior was unforgivable.  Personally, I think they indicted Casto a little too quickly based on the information they shared with the viewing audience, but as I always say, I have to hope that all the research that wasn’t “sexy” enough to make it on air justified the way they described him.

Back in Jefferson City, Nixon now goes to the Missouri State Penitentiary.  It definitely looks closed and disused.  Unlike Alcatraz, which is open as a national park for visitors, the penitentiary looks like no one goes there, but it apparently does offer regular tours.  On site to speak with Nixon is Patricia Cohen, a 19th-century women’s history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Nixon asks first what daily life would have been like for Martha as the only woman in the penitentiary and how she would have been dealt with.  Cohen tells her Martha would have been in the same cell block as the men but would have been segregated and spent most of her time alone in her cell.  She also mentions that the penitentiary was a contract prison and was run as a business.

Nixon (oh so disingenuously) asks if there is any way to learn more about Martha’s time in the penitentiary.  (Of course there is; haven't they found answers for all of her previous inquiries?  Otherwise that question wouldn’t have been scripted, now, would it?)  Gamber tells her about a book called Prison Life and Reflections:  Or, a Narrative of the Arrest, Trial, Conviction, Imprisonment, Treatment, Observations, Reflections, and Deliverance of Work, Burr, and Thompson, by George Thompson, published in 1848.  (What Gamber didn’t mention was the rest of the title:  Who Suffered an Unjust and Cruel Imprisonment in Missouri Penitentiary, for Attempting to Aid Some Slaves to Liberty, which actually makes the book sound much more interesting.  She also didn't mention the book is available for free on Google Books.  But the program did find a hard copy, which is very cool.)  Thompson mentioned Martha, though not by name, in a short passage in the book:

“M., a woman, killed her husband with an axe—was sent here for five years—staid about half of it and was pardoned by Governor Edwards.” (page 347)

Nixon also reads that Martha became the mother of a daughter born in the fall of 1844 (page 287).  Since Noah Casto died in July 1843, it was impossible for Sarah to have been his child.  The primary candidates for Sarah’s father would have been the wardens, overseer, and guards.  (This looks like a great situation to try DNA testing, but nothing was discussed about any descendants Sarah had.)  Mrs. Brown, the wife of Judge Brown, wouldn’t allow anyone to help Martha with the baby (which to me suggests she might have thought her husband was the father).  Martha was not allowed to have a fire in her cell to keep her warm; it certainly seems the idea was to make it difficult for the baby to survive.  But Martha and Sarah were very strong, and they made it.  Martha was pardoned almost two years after her arrival.  Gamber suggests that if Nixon can find the pardon, things might become clearer.  (Might?  Get real.  We all know that you guys have already found the pardon.)

In this interlude, Nixon talks about how Martha must have felt that nothing could be worse than life with her husband.  Maybe her baby daughter gave her something to fight for while she was in prison.  She wonders if Martha was raped in prison or how she became pregnant.

And back Nixon goes to the Missouri State Archives.  This time she meets with Gary R. Kremer, a historian and the executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.  Nixon is “hoping” the pardon will shed more light on what happened to Martha.  Kremer has Nixon take out a folder with a yellowed parchment.  It is a petition dated November 28, 1844, when Martha was about 32 years old.   She apparently was pardoned primarily due to this petition, which was signed by many people, including some prominent political figures (e.g., W. P. Hall, a U.S. Congressman and later Missouri governor, and Lilburn W. Boggs, a former Missouri governor).  The petition mentions her suffering, that she had a child, and the chance of her freezing in the cold winter months.  So the word had gotten out about Martha’s daughter, and there was definitely possible embarrassment for the authorities if the child died.  Governor John Edwards signed Martha’s pardon on December 17,  1844.

Kremer says that Martha's time in prison became a turning point in penal practice and was the beginning of a change for the better.  Women could no longer be incarcerated with men.  He did not give any specific references to later government actions or even articles that referenced Martha’s case as being a reason for new procedures being established, though.

Nixon then asks Kremer if he knows when Martha died.  Kremer directs her to (conveniently owned by and has her search for Martha Curnutt.  Martha is listed (are you surprised?).  She died in 1877 and is buried in Avery Cemetery.  (Martha's entry has much more information now than it did when the episode was filmed.)

Before she visits the cemetery, Nixon talks about how glad she is that someone came to Martha’s rescue.  Martha “endured so much” and went through all that “tumult” and “horror.”

The last segment is Nixon’s visit to Martha’s grave.  It is in a remote cemetery that looks to be in somewhat poor condition.  It is fenced in, and scattered tombstones are in small groups.  Nixon wonders whether any other relatives might be buried there also (of course there are).  There don’t appear to be any marked rows or plots, yet Nixon unerringly goes straight to Martha’s grave:  Martha Curnutt, no birth date, died April 4, 1877.  Buried near her are Mary M. Nixon and Samuel J. Nixon, Cynthia Nixon’s great-great-grandparents.  Nixon lays flowers at Martha’s grave.  She looks around at the “pretty, pretty setting” and tells Martha, “I’m glad I found you.”

In the outro, Nixon talks about how Martha encountered a lot of tragedy, death, and violence in her life and that she must have wanted to give up many times, but that she didn’t accept things and that sometimes people can defy the odds.  This seems a little (just a little) melodramatic to me, but Martha definitely was not the “average” woman for the time.  Nixon thinks of herself as a strong person, but I’m not sure she thinks she could have done what Martha did.  She says that Martha made history, but something good came out of it, because she started a change regarding laws about incarcerating women with men.  She also figures that her family members will think it interesting that they have an axe murderer in the family, so I guess that’s kind of putting a good spin on things.

I found it intriguing that the teaser for the next episode, which will focus on Jesse Tyler Ferguson, also mentioned a murder.  Maybe that will be a unifying them for this season’s celebrities?

Monday, July 28, 2014

IAJGS Conference Days 1 and 2

Here I am in beautiful Salt Lake City!  I have been told it was 100+ degrees the past two days, but it really is a dry heat, so it's much more comfortable than when I used to live in Florida.  On the other hand, I do appreciate the air conditioning at the Hilton Hotel, which is where the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy is being held this year.  We've already gone through two days of the conference, and this is the first chance I've had to write about it.

I was told several years ago by a former boss that if you go to a conference and learn one thing that you can take away and use in your work, that's a successful conference.  Going by that, I'm doing very well so far — I've had one session each day where I learned new techniques I could take away and use, plus I've had some great social get-togethers.

The biggest surprise for me so far has been the sessions I have found the most interesting.  On Sunday I went to a presentation by Crista Cowan of on search tips for the site.  Now, anyone who knows me has probably heard me rant about Ancestry and how they present records on the site (along with a lot of other things).  The main reasons I decided to attend the session were that there wasn't really anything else in that time slot I was interested in, and I thought it would be amusing to see what Cowan had to say.  I figured it was going to be nothing but a sales pitch.

Cowan opened by emphasizing that the presentation was only about search and that she wouldn't answer questions about any other topic.  She then asked attendees what burning questions they had about searching on Ancestry.  My contribution was to ask why entering terms in fields on search pages returned results that didn't match those fields when I specified exact matches only.

After noting several questions, she told us, "You know that Ancestry ad where they say you don't have to know what you're looking for, you just have to start looking?  Well, they're wrong.  That's for those people who are just starting, so they can find something and then they'll buy subscriptions."  That was an indication that the class was going to be more worthwhile than I thought!  She was refreshingly honest about how Ancestry markets.  She said you absolutely need to think about what you're looking for, which I've been saying for years.  She also agreed with what I tell people, which is that you should never search from the home page.  Just like me, she always goes to the advanced search page.

I already use most of the hints she told us about, such as going to the database you need when you are looking for specific information, marking "exact only", restricting by location, searching without names, and more.  And she told us the reason the search pages are not set on exact search by default (which someone asked about) is for new researchers, because otherwise they probably wouldn't find anything and then wouldn't want to pay.

Some technical aspects she discussed were also informative.  If the database is index only and has no images, Ancestry didn't create it, so it is licensed from someone else; Ancestry usually does not make corrections to those databases.  Most of the databases with images have indices that Ancestry created.  The reason a search term must have a minimum of three letters is because otherwise it takes too much processing time on their servers (something I had learned previously from Steve Morse, who has improved search pages for many Ancestry databases on his One-Step Webpages site).  At the bottom of the advanced search page, if you change the collection priority to Jewish, the Soundex search will be based on Daitch-Mokotoff instead of American Soundex (which could turn out to be very helpful to me).

At the end of the presentation, when she was doing her wrap-up, she had not addressed my question about receiving irrelevant results when I requested exact matches on a search page, so I asked again.  The specific example I cited was searches in the California voter registers, where I can specify a register year of 1946 and receive results from other years but that have street addresses of 1946.  I had long suspected that the cause was that the database of search terms was not mapped to the fields on the search page.  She confirmed this in a roundabout way by telling us that typed documents, such as those voter registers, are not transcribed by people but are OCR scanned.  That means that the terms are not coded in search fields, so when you search for anything, it's just a word in the database.  As far as I'm concerned, that means the search page shouldn't have fields such as first name, last name, or year, because it's misleading.  There should just be a line for keywords.  I have the same problem with newspaper databases such as

The other informative session I attended was on Monday, by Josh Taylor of FindMyPast/BrightSolid/DCThomson and the Federation of Genealogical Societies.  He spoke about ways to get members of the younger generations — "21sters" — interested in genealogy and active in genealogy societies.  This was essentially the same presentation of his I heard a couple of years ago, but he has updated it and refined some of his opinions.  I went to this primarily because I volunteered to introduce him and be the room monitor, but I hoped there might also be helpful information that could be applied in the societies I belong to.

His big message for attracting the younger generation is that you have to connect online and use technology.  You also have to abandon old-fashioned approaches such as pedigree charts and citations, because those don't appeal to this generation.  He did not say it directly, but the message was that people accustomed to instant gratification don't want to take the time to learn how to research, prove, and document information.  They just want to know the answers and then move on.  While I don't agree with trying to implement that part of what he said, he had some ideas about marketing and outreach that could be interesting to try.  One was reaching out and trying to build community partnerships, such as with schools and youth organizations, and maybe sponsoring a writing contest or scholarship.  Another was having some sort of table or event at a mall, where the younger generations hangs out.  He spoke about Reddit but admitted that answering a bunch of questions online for free didn't readily translate into someone becoming involved with a society.  Something that wouldn't necessarily apply to 21sters but could help attract more inquiries was to have your society listed at the local convention and visitors bureau.  There were a lot of ideas, which I'm going to have to type up and bring to my next couple of board meetings for discussion,.

The networking opportunities so far have been wonderful.  On Sunday several professional genealogists got together and talked about what kinds of research and other professional work we do and how we might be able to work together and help each other.  On Monday IAJGS President Marlis Humphrey held a media lunch for bloggers, writers, journalists, etc., apparently the first time this has been done at an IAJGS conference.  She discussed some of the marketing concepts IAJGS is considering and how outreach can be improved.  And Monday evening a bunch of us Jewish bloggers (and James Tanner, who is not Jewish) sat down for an informal bring-your-own-dinner meeting.  We talked about our blogs, why we started them, and what kinds of things we write about and generally schmoozed for a couple of hours.  It was really nice to meet a lot of people face to face and not just as e-mail addresses and URL's online.

There have been some significant disappointments at the conference, unfortunately.  One speaker just talked about personal anecdotes from his family; another mumbled and didn't project into the microphone; at three sessions the speakers read directly from their typed notes and didn't look at the audience.  (At one of those, I could see from the reverse side of the paper that text was formatted as from a journal, so I walked out and figured I'll search for the article and read it myself.)  Two talks gave no information about how to research the topic, just showed several examples of information with no context.  Another speaker started off by saying that there was a lot of material to cover so we had to get going, then spent the first ten minutes telling us what she wouldn't be discussing.  And the worst was an hour of excruciating, painfully executed English that was mostly not understandable, which ended with a shill to get money.  And to think the conference isn't giving us evaluation sheets for the talks!!

But tomorrow (Tuesday) is another day!  Which I really need to get some sleep for ....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What? A New Issue of "The Galitzianer" So Soon?

What's this, you say?  Another issue of The Galitzianer has gone to the printer already?  How could that be?  Could it be that Janice is catching up on her schedule again?

Yes!  I'm actually almost caught up!  The June 2014 issue of The G went to the printer last week and will be mailed this week.  That's pretty good when you consider that the March issue went out in June (one of these days I swear I'm going to be healthy again).

So I'm obviously excited that timeliness is re-entering my life.  This issue has some great articles, too.  Tony Kahane discusses upcoming legislation in Poland that will affect access to vital records.  The death record of a man in a specific house starts genealogist Israel Pickholtz on a search for how he might be connected to the family living there.  A woman contacted by a cousin via Facebook ended up taking a trip to Israel to meet cousins from a branch of the family that had been out of contact since World War II.  And we had permission to reprint a story by Robin Meltzer which publicly quashed, at least for a while, the age-old myth about names being changed at Ellis Island, this time in conjunction with the great Sid Caesar (may he rest in peace).

Members of Gesher Galicia receive The Galitzianer as a benefit of membership.  Gesher Galicia is a nonprofit organization focused on researching Jews and Jewish life in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.  Information on becoming a member is available here.

Articles for The Galitzianer are accepted from both members and nonmembers, and I love to read them all.  If you submit an article that is published, you will receive a copy of the issue with your article even if you are not a member.  Submissions may be articles and/or graphics, both original and previously published, and must be relevant to Galician Jewish genealogical research:  articles about recent trips to Galicia, reports on your own research, historical and recent pictures, etc.  Electronic submissions are preferred, though not required.  If you wish to submit material for consideration, please contact me at  I accept submissions year-round, but the deadline for the September 2014 issue is August 20.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Indexing (Transcribing, Really), British Maps, Scots, and Australians

Will you be participating in the FamilySearch Worldwide Indexing Project?  (Even though it's actually transcribing, not indexing, as any true indexer will be happy to explain to you.)

All of the searchable databases for the genealogy records available on are thanks to volunteers who transcribe information from digitized microfilm.  In 2012, FamilySearch had a 24-hour marathon session where 49,025 volunteers participated by transcribing or verifying records.  This year, on July 20 and 21, FamilySearch is trying to beat the record number of volunteers that was set in 2012.  They hope to have 50,000 people participate this time, which actually shouldn't be that difficult, since they were so close last time.

How about getting a bunch of people together and making a party of it?  That's what we're doing here in Oakland!  Several staff members from the Oakland FamilySearch Library are having an indexing party on Monday.  We're getting together for brunch and transcribing.  And we'll probably have lots of chocolate to munch on while we're working.

It's really easy to get started.  Everything you need to know is right here.  To be counted in the official total, all you need to do is submit one batch of records.  Of course, if you want to do more, no one's going to complain ....

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Similar to the New York Public Library appeal to crowdsourcing to identify details in 19th-century atlases that have been digitized and placed online, the British Library has uploaded more than 3,000 maps from 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century references to Flickr and is now asking volunteers to help identify locations on the maps.

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The Gordon Highlanders' Museum has photographs of unidentified Gordon Highlanders from World War I.  As an experiment, the museum has teamed up with ScotlandsPeople to see if they can find anyone who can identify the men in a small number of photos.

They have created a Web page that showcases six photographs of the 7th Battalion (the Deeside Battalion) of the Gordon Highlanders.  The photos depict the 7th Battalion in the UK:  in Scotland, leaving for Bedford in August 1914, or training there until May 1915.  None of them depicts the 7th Gordons in France.

If you think you can identify anyone in the photos, please send a message to the e-mail address listed on the Web page.

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A research project at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne is focused on Alfred Bergel (1902–1944), an artist and art teacher from Vienna.  He was one of the important figures in the cultural life of Terezín.  He was used by the Nazis to forge famous works of art.  He also worked as a painter and taught children and young people drawing, art history, and art appreciation.  He died in Auschwitz.  Today, his name and works are mostly forgotten.  If you have any information to contribute to this project, or want more information about it, please contact Mareike Montgomery at

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The Destination:  Australia Web site, a project of the Australian National Archives, wants to draw on the stories of the people and family members featured in the photographs showcased on the site to create an in-depth history of Australia’s postwar immigration.  They are looking for people to share immigration stories related to the more than 21,000 photographs from a promotional series taken by the Department of Immigration since 1945.  You can tag people you know, tag where they came from and went to, add descriptions and comments, and comment on others’ contributions.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Did the 1918 Flu Pandemic Affect Your Family?

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people throughout the world.  In the United States, one of the groups hardest hit was servicemen drafted into the Army for World War I.  One member of my family probably caught the flu this way, and he passed it on to his sister and almost prevented my grandmother from being born.  At least, that's how the family story goes.

Velvel Brainin was the second-youngest brother of my great-grandmother Sarah.  He was born about 1892 in the Russian Empire, possibly in or near Kreuzburg (now Krustpils, Lativa).  He immigrated to the U.S. sometime between 1904 and 1910, most likely with his mother, Ruchel Dwore Jaffe Brainin (my great-great-grandmother), and the two youngest children, Pesche (later Bessie) and Benjamin (I still haven't found that ship manifest).  By 1910 the entire family was in the U.S., and everyone except brother David was living in New York City.  (David was in San Francisco, but that's another story.)

Velvel went by the name of William after his arrival here.  He registered for the draft on June 1, 1917 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was working as a tailor with his brother Max.  According to his draft registration card, he was of medium height and build and had dark brown hair and eyes.  Once when my grandmother and I were going through boxes of photographs, she identified one photo as "my Uncle Willie in his Army uniform", but that photo sadly seems to have disappeared.

"Willie" died in New York City on January 26, 1920.  The death certificate lists the cause of death as influenza.  Since he apparently did serve in the Army, either by being drafted or by enlisting, there is a good chance he caught the flu while at boot camp, as many soldiers did.

Most of the above information is pretty straightforward.  Now comes the family story.

My grandmother told me that while her mother (the aforementioned great-grandmother Sarah) was pregnant with my grandmother, she caught the flu from her brother Willie.  Sarah became seriously ill and had to go to the hospital.  Both her life and that of my grandmother were in danger.  She supposedly had a lung removed.  When my grandmother was born and they both proved to be healthy, my great-great-grandfather the rabbi went dancing in the streets in celebration.

One interesting element to the story is that my grandmother always said that her uncle died before she was born, which was in 1919, so I had not put much effort into looking for him in the 1920 census.  When I finally found the Brainin family in the census, however, William was there, still alive and kicking.

To make sure I actually had the right guy, I searched in the New York City death index and found a likely candidate, who had died shortly after the family was enumerated in the census.  When I obtained the death certificate, it showed he was the right person.

So with one part of my grandmother's story disproven, what about the rest?  Medical records are pretty taboo in this country, so it is unlikely I would be able to gain access to them, if they have even survived (I have been told that medical records need only be kept for 20 years; most are destroyed after that, and my great-grandmother died 50 years ago).  So much for verifying the lung removal.  There might be an obituary for William in a local paper, which might mention the family story, but it would probably be in Yiddish—which I don't read.

Willie was certainly enlisted, not an officer, so his service file was probably burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, but I should try asking for it just in case.  I'm not a descendant (not that he had any), however, which will limit what I can receive.  But if I can find out what unit he was assigned to or where he went to boot camp, I can try to track down morning reports that might mention Willie becoming ill with the flu and when it happened.  Then I could at least verify that part of the story.

Willie said on his draft registration that he was a naturalized citizen.  I also should try to get a copy of his naturalization file.  He doesn't seem to have become a citizen in New York City (or at least his name doesn't show up in the Italian Genealogical Group index), so it's possible he was naturalized while stationed somewhere else with the Army.  That would be another possible way to learn his unit and then look for morning reports.

The great thing about family stories is that they give so much texture to what otherwise can easily be a dry list of names and dates.  But not everything in family stories is necessarily true; sometimes things are "misremembered" over time.  It's good to try to verify the accuracy of as many facts as possible, because knowing the accurate information can affect your future research.  Don't just dump the story, though.  Record it as the impetus that started you researching in that direction.  After all, if you hadn't heard the story, you might not have looked for that information, right?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Latest and Greatest in Newspaper Archive Links

I have learned about a lot of new newspaper links!  Even though it means there's always more work to do, I think it's great that more and more historical newspapers are showing up online.  I don't mind adding links to the Wikipedia online newspaper archives page when it means that much more information is easily available to researchers.

• Namibia:  New Era newspaper is online and has an archive going back about twenty years.  This is a pay site.
• United Kingdom:  The Isle of Wight County Press now has an archive of its entire historical run, from 1884–present.  This is a pay database.
• United Kingdom:   Someone has created a very cool index of online British newspapers sorted by county, and which collection you'll find each newspaper in.  He says where you'll find the subscription databases based on the UK, but you can also use the British Library 19th Century Newspapers database at FamilySearch Centers and Libraries through the FHL portal.
• Arkansas:  Two links have been added for Yell County obituaries.  One site has images.  The other has more obituaries but has transcriptions.  Both are free.
• California:  Almost the entire historic run of The Collegian, the student newspaper from the California State University at Fresno, has been digitized and is now online.  Only four years appear to be unavailable.
• Georgia:  The Signal, the student newspaper at Georgia State University, has been digitized in its entirety and is available free online at the university library Web site.
• Idaho (new state):  The Boise Public Library has a free online index for obituaries.  The page does not include information about the range of years, newspapers, or area covered, though it likely covers Boise and Ada County.
• Illinois:  The Geneseo (Henry County) Public Library has an online collection spanning 1856–1977 that includes more than a dozen newspapers.  And it's free!
• New Mexico (new state):  The Santa Fe New Mexican has an archive of several historical newspapers ranging in coverage from 1847–2013.  This is a pay database.  The newspapers are also available through
• North Carolina:  Duke University has digitized almost a complete collection of DukEngineer, the student publication of the Pratt School of Engineering.  It's available free online.
• South Carolina:  The York County Library has posted two databases, both free.  One is scans of newspaper clippings from the 1930's to 1970's.  The second is an index to news and obituaries from several local newspapers; the years covered range from 1823–2012, but there are several gaps.
• South Dakota:  The Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research has posted an obituary index in PDF format for the Rapid City Journal for 1968–2012.  The society will even e-mail you a copy of the obituary!
• Tennessee:  The Williamson County Public Library has an online index to obituaries from 1920 to the present.  Some of the index entries include transcriptions of the obituaries.  This is the first free link under Tennessee!
• Texas:  The Burnet County Genealogical Society has a free obituary index for 1876–1910.
• Texas:  The Fort Bend County Libraries have an obituary index that includes images of the obituaries for many of the entries dating from August 1, 2007 to the present.
• U.S. National:  Stars and Stripes is available in a pay database for the years 1942–1945 and 1948–1999.

 And remember, Wikipedia allows you to add links to the page also!  If you don't want to, send me new links that you find and I'll be happy to post them.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Down the Curiosity Rabbit Hole

Sometimes you run across something particularly fascinating, and even though it doesn't have anything to do with your research, it piques your curiosity enough that you have to follow up on it.  That's what happened to me at an exhibit at the California Historical Society.

The exhibit, which recently ended, was about Juana Briones, a resident of California who lived under the control of Spain, Mexico, and the United States.  In an era when women had few rights, she procured a separation from her abusive husband, ran a successful business, was a well known and respected healer and midwife, and defended her property against multiple attempts to take it, all while remaining illiterate.

While I found the story of Briones very interesting and learned quite a bit, the item in the exhibit that truly captured my attention was a reproduction of a painting of sixteen couples, each with a child.  Each group was identified with the race of the father, the mother, and the child.  It was a well defined list of racial classifications that reminded me of New Orleans, with its mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and more.  But this list was of successive combinations of different "races" and was amazingly detailed.  It was called a pintura de castas ("casta painting").

The California Historical Society has created an online exhibition with most of the information from the Briones exhibit.  After searching through several sections of the site, I found the pintura de castas and was able to look at it close-up.  These are the combinations it shows:

Español con India = Mestizo
Mestizo con Española = Castizo
Castizo con Española = Español
Español con Mora = Mulato
Mulato con Española = Morisco
Morisco con Española = Chino
Chino con India = Salta atras
Salta atras con Mulata = Lobo
Lobo con China = Gibaro
Gibaro con Mulata = Albarazado
Albarazado con Negra = Canbujo
Canbujo con India = Sanbaigo
Sanbaigo con Loba = Calpamulato
Calpamulato con Canbuja = Tente en el Aire
Tente en el Aire con Mulata = Noteentiendo (No te entiendo)
Noteentiendo con India = Tornaatraz (Torna atras)

When I translated the Spanish, some of it didn't exactly make sense.  How do you get a Moor from a mulatto and a Spaniard?  How do a Moor and a Spaniard produce a Chinese child?  And if the intention was merely to describe the child's complexion, what does it mean to have a Chinese and an Indian "jump back?"  And how do a "jump back" and a mulatto have a wolf?

So then I decided to Google some of the terms from the combinations.  I discovered that Wikipedia has a page explaining castas, which were an attempt by the colonizing Spanish to classify mixed-race people in the Americas.  (The page even shows the same painting from the exhibit.)  It mentions that some of the terms used were a little "fanciful."  It also explains that chino was not Chinese but came from the word cochino, "pig."  (Of course, that now means that a Moor and a Spaniard produce a pig for a child, but remember the word "fanciful.")

So I ended up learning quite a bit by attending the exhibit and then following the trail of that painting.  And a fascinating journey it was.