Genealogists Should Abandon the “Brick Wall” Metaphor

Have you ever built a brick wall? Me neither, but I know a little about the process. A brick wall is solid. Creating one takes a lot of skill. It’s not just slapping some bricks and mortar together and hoping for the best. It’s not some Neanderthal tossing bricks on top of each other and expecting them to stick. There is both skill and planning involved to build a brick wall that’s solid and long-lasting. Doesn’t this sound more like the process by which we actually accomplish our research, not something that suddenly stops it?

For a mason, one of the first steps is to lay a level foundation so that everything you put on top of that initial course is also level and square. Having laid that first course, a plumb line and level ensure that each successive course is also level. A skilled mason knows how to both mix and apply the mortar that binds those bricks together. When does a brick wall end? In practice, it ends when the wall meets the blueprint specifications. In theory, if you were building a wall with the only specification being that you build a wall as high as possible, the wall ends whenever you run out of bricks, run out of mortar, or the don’t have the knowledge of the techniques to make a really tall wall secure. (Can you say “GPS”?)

The commonly accepted genealogical definition of brick wall is something impenetrable that stands in our way– something that keeps us from continuing our research. In reality, a “brick wall, or at least the process of building one, better describes the  research process than it does something we run into . In genealogy, we are working with that theoretical mandate that we continue building as high as we can. We want to start with as solid a foundation as we can, and we proceed from there. Continuing the analogy, when we get stuck, it’s not because we’ve physically hit something– it’s because we’ve either run out of bricks, we’ve run out of mortar, or our wall is so high that we don’t know how to keep it from wobbling.

In this analogy, the bricks are either the sources or information we get from those sources; the mortar is the analysis that connects them; and the knowledge of construction techniques is the methodology we use to tackle the issue of stability or reliability. Therefore, “brick walls” should be something we actually try and create as genealogists, not something that gets in our way.

When we can’t reach anymore conclusions about our research subject, we haven’t hit a “brick wall,” we’ve simply run out of an ingredient required to build a solid structure. We need more bricks, mortar, or technique. If there’s no more to be had, then there’s no more to be had. We haven’t RUN into a wall– we’ve run OUT of stuff with which to continue building. Sometimes. we can find an alternative way to construct a solid wall, sometimes we just haven’t looked far and wide enough for more material, but other times we just don’t have what we need.

Now I don’t expect everyone in genealogy land to suddenly change their vocabulary, but it just struck me that the whole “brick wall” idea as we perceive it is a bad metaphor. When we’re stuck. we’re stuck — but there’s no wall in our way, it’s just that we can no longer build a solid one. Thoughts?

Posted in Thoughts and Musings | 4 Comments

Who Do Ewe Think Your Ancestor Is?

You’ve looked high. You’ve looked low. You’ve looked wide and far. You’ve examined every common record you think might contain information about your ancestors, their friends, their associates, and their neighbors– all without much luck. Have you tried the records of their sheep?

I admit, I was more curious than anything else when I filled out the call slip for “Record of Sheep Claims” for Jefferson County, Ohio.1  I didn’t have much expectation that the sheep would give much genealogical information. I was pleasantly surprised. While they don’t provide a ton of genealogical information, sheep claims are a good example of a record that connects people in time and place, and creates an association.

What is a sheep claim? In 1893, section 4215 of the Ohio Revised Code outlines how a farmer can claim damages caused by dogs killing their sheep: “Any person damaged by the killing or injury of sheep by dog or dogs may present a account of the injury done with damages claimed therefor verified by affidavit at any regular meeting of the trustees of the township where the damage or injury occurred.”2 Even better, the law required two witnesses “who are freeholders of the neighborhood where the injury was done…[and] shall be allowed fifty cents each and mileage as in other cases…” Witnesses had to testify to the amount of damage of the claim and that the damage was not caused by either the claimant’s dogs nor his dogs, but by unknown dogs.3

The statute goes on to explain that allowed claims were to paid out of a fund created by a per capita dog tax. In the event that the fund was insufficient to pay all claims, the claims would be prorated. These records, along with the trustee’s signature approving the claim were to be transferred to the county commissioners “in care of the county auditor who shall enter upon a book to be kept for that purpose.”4

Warning: These books are large. In order to read the actual record, you’ll need to click on the image to see it full-size, but you’ll see that the trio of Henry Kitheart, Joseph Kitheart, and Walter J. Hussey come in together twice. William McCue’s witnesses were J.C. More and W.W. Moore.5 We can’t tell exact relationships from this record, but it is evidence of some relationship. Again, these aren’t giving us volumes of information, but they list names that connect people in a specific time and place. It’s those associations between our ancestors and those people around him that help make our ancestor’s identity unique. If this is a record that might contain one of those associations, do you dare overlook it?


This record group, and many many more are part of the Ohio Local Government Records program, which consists of several archives that collect and preserve lesser-used, but certainly useful record groups. You can go to the Ohio Historical Society’s website to learn a little more about the places that are part of the Ohio Network Of American History Research Centers, including links to those centers with online listings of collections. Or if you’re not in a hurry, you can come out to the 2014 Ohio Genealogical Society conference on April 30 – May 3, where I’ll be presenting a program about these records.

  1. Jefferson County, Ohio, Auditor, sheep claims, LGR 247, 1 volume, 1892–1927; Youngstown Museum of Labor and Industry, Youngstown. []
  2. State of Ohio, General Assembly, Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 40 (Norwalk: Laning Printing Co.,1893), 348-349; digital images, Google Books  ( accessed 21 Aug 2013). []
  3. ibid.  []
  4. ibid. []
  5. Jefferson Co., Ohio, sheep claims, 18-19. []
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Wrestling With FamilySearch Record Collections That Use the Russell Index

The Russell Index. Just mentioning the name causes some to shudder. The skeleton key symbol emblazoned with its cryptic “l-m-n-r-t” message. The dreaded columns and rows.  Letters and numbers all over the page. Noooooo! If you do research in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, among others, you are going to have to master this index. I’m here to tell you, though, folks – this is one of my favorite indexes. With just a little bit of practice, I guarantee you’ll learn to love it, too. There are different variations of this index, but each revolves around the use of five key letters that follow the first letter of a given surname.

Russell index books are organized into individual volumes, according the initial letter of a surname. You may also find volumes that combine several initial letters into one volume. For example, you might find a single volume that contains all those surnames beginning with H, I, and J. Once you have the volume in hand that contains the surname you are interested in, ignore the first letter of the surname and identify the first key letter contained within that name. The Russell system uses five key letters: L, M, N, R, and T. If I am looking for the surname “Johns,” I first select the volume that contains the “J” surnames. Next, I need to identify the first key letter in “Johns.” That key letter is “N.” Once we know the key letter, index entries are going to be organized by first letter of the given name. If the surname doesn’t contain any key letters, use the “Misc.” column. Simple enough, right?

Using the chart below, what section would contain entries for Samuel Johns?1 (answer in the footnote)



This all seems rather complicated. How can I claim this is one of my favorite indexes? While not a true “sounds-like” index, the use of key letters groups similar-sounding surnames in the same section. This makes it easier to search for alternate spellings of names, as they are all in one place. For example, if I am looking for transactions for Rueben Summers, I will find them all in section 152, regardless of whether the name is spelled “Summers,” “Sommers,” “Summer,” or “Sommer.” What if I don’t know the given name that I’m looking for– only a surname? The Russell Index simplifies that search, too. Using the index above, if I’m looking for entries for an unknown Summers, I can start at section 12, go to 22, then 32, etc. In a general index that’s organized by surname, then by first name, and then chronologically by date, you would likely have to scroll through many, many more pages to find every entry of interest.

So how does this work online with FamilySearch record collections? Many of the collections that have been digitized and put online are not indexed, and you have to browse through them similar to the way you would scroll through using the actual microfilm. Many of the films (and therefore the digitized images of that film) contain more than one volume. Therefore, the inside cover of each index book – the page that usually contains the index key- might be found anywhere within the digital collection.

*Most* collections start at the beginning of a volume, in which case it’s fairly easy to find the index key, as it is usually within the first few images of the collection. If that’s the case, be sure to note the number of the image that contains it so you can go directly back to it if necessary. I’ve also found it useful to print out a key for the Russell Index variations that I most frequently use rather than have to keep going back and forth when searching for different names; it’s a real time-saver.

Need more Russell Index practice? Use the Russell index above to look for the following folks– the first few governors of Ohio.

Edward Tiffin?2
Thomas Kirker?3
Samuel Huntingdon?4
Return Meigs?5
Othniel Looker?6
Unknown Worthington?7

Just to make sure you don’t cheat and look directly at the answers, below is a Russell Index variation that uses two key letters instead of one. It works exactly the same way, but breaks the indexes down into more manageable chunks when there are lots of entries.


See? The Russell Index is NOT that scary. Take a deep breath, read the instructions, and then show Russell who is boss!

  1. Section 153. The only key letter is “n.” Following that column down to given names that start with “S” gives us the answer. []
  2. Tiffin, 53 []
  3. Kirker, 164 []
  4. Huntingdon, 153 []
  5. Meigs, 146 []
  6. Looker, 124 []
  7. Worthington, all those sections ending with 4 []
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Attention Ohio Residents: New Gambling Law Passed in the Northwest Territory

betting,blackjack,casinos,chips,gambling,games,leisure,luck,playing cards,poker,recreation

In 2013, gaming in the (former) Northwest Territory is a hot topic. Casinos, internet cafes, or Keno games dot our Territory and can be found in just about every city, town, village, or station. Here in Cleveland, the opening of the Horseshoe Casino was big news. The new Racino just opened at Thistledown Race Track. How would these enterprises have fared in 1790 under the laws of Northwest Territory? They would have been shut down, lost their license, and been ordered to pay $100 “to the use of the territory,”1

In August of 1790 in Vincennes, the “act for suppressing and prohibiting every species of Gaming for Money or other Property, and for making void all contracts and payments made in consequence thereof, and also for restraining the disorderly practice of discharging Fire Arms at certain hours and places.” was passed.2 The preamble to the act details why such an act was necessary:

WHEREAS the population, happiness and prosperity of all countries, especially infant communities, necessarily depend upon the sobriety and industry of the people, and their attention to the moral and political duties of life, without which neither the great ends of society can be answered, nor the blessings of good government be felt. And whereas many pernicious games have been publickly practised in this territory, tending to the corruption of morals and the increase of vice and idleness, and by which the honest and unsuspecting citizen may be defrauded, and deserving families be reduced to beggary and want.3

The act  stipulates that:

if any person or persons within this territory, shall on his, her or their own account…publickly set up, permit, or tables, suffer, or cause or procure to be publickly set up, permitted or suffered, any species of gaming…whereby money or other property shall be betted, won or lost, or…may derive any benefit or advantage, in money, goods or other property, as a consideration for permission to play or bett thereat, each and every such person so offending shall forfeit and pay for every such offence…the sum of two hundred dollars.”4

Tavern keepers were also held responsible for any sort of gambling in their establishments or on their property, and were subject to a one hundred dollar fine for any offense.5 Interestingly, tacked onto this legislation was an additional regulation regarding the discharging of firearms. Anyone shooting their gun within a quarter of a mile of the nearest building of a city, town, village, or station would be fined between one and five dollars. Shoot your gun “after the setting of the sun and before the rising of the same” and you can expect another fine of the same amount.6 The exception to this law is one that provides insight into the daily lives and regular threats to those intrepid, early settlers of the Northwest Territory. It tells us a little bit about what was important to our frontier ancestors:

nothing herein contained shall be deemed or construed to extend to any person lawfully using fire-arms as offensive or defensive weapons, in annoying, or opposing a common enemy, or defending his or her person or property, or the person or property of any other, against the invasion or depredations of an enemy, or in the support of the laws and government; or against the attacks of rebels, highwaymen, robbers, thieves, or others unlawfully assailing him or her, or in any other manner where such opposition, defence, or resistance is allowed by the law of the land…. 

Provided also. That nothing herein contained shall be construed in or extend to prevent the necessary military exercise…firings of, or the discharging of cannon or small arms, by any soldiers or troops in the service of the United States…. 

[nor] to the act of killing or destroying…mad or wild animals of the brute kind lurking among, in or near, or preying upon or threatening to prey upon and devour any kind of animal stock, or the corn, grain, and other produce in, of or belonging to any plantation…nor to the hindrance of any person shooting at or killing any of the larger kind of game or wild animals, such as buffaloes, bears, deer, hares, rabbits, turkies, swans, geese that may happen at any time to come in view, or be passing or feeding near any city, town, or other place as aforesaid7.

  1. Theodore C. Pease, The Laws of the Northwest Territory, 1788-1800  (Springfield: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1925.), 31; digital images, Internet Archive, Ebook and Texts Archive ( accessed 30 Jun 2013). []
  2. ibid. []
  3. ibid., 30 []
  4. ibid. []
  5. ibid., 31 []
  6. ibid., 33 []
  7. ibid., 33-34 []
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Meet More of Your Ancestor In Original Records

I need to apologize to my 4th great-grandmother in advance – sorry 4th Great-Grandma Staats, but thank you for the record I use in this example. 

This particular example is brought to you by the fabulous record-keeping of the Quakers, but the lesson applies to any records that we use in genealogy. Always, always, always seek out the original record, or at least as close to the original as you can get. You never know what you are going to find until you look. Or, as J.R.R. Tolkien said much more eloquently than I, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Anyone who has done Quaker research is probably familiar with William Wade Hinshaw’s spectacular, multi-volume  abstractions of Quaker Monthly Meeting minutes – and they are spectacular. From my experience, while most everyone has used this resource, it’s a resource that provides enough information that most people don’t ever pursue those original meeting minutes. Pursue those original meeting minutes. Here follows a perfect example of why we need to do this. First, here is the Hinshaw entry in which Margaret (Chandler) Staats is disowned from the Redstone MM (near Brownsville, PA):

William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, Vol. IV: Ohio Monthly Meetings (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. 1944), 80; digital images, ( accessed: 31 Jan 2009).

William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, Vol. IV: Ohio Monthly Meetings (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. 1944), 80; digital images, ( accessed 31 Jan 2009).


The original Monthly Meeting records in the case are not accessible, but early transcriptions of the original are held at the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (or at least were at the time of filming). They have been filmed and are available though any FamilySearch family history center. When I consulted the original record, this is what I discovered:

Redstone Monthly Meeting, Brownsville, Pennsylvania, Minutes of the Men's and Women's meetings, 1793-1862., "Margaret Staats, formerly Chandler" disownment (1800); Redstone Monthly Meeting (Brownsville, Pennsylvania), citing typescript records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; FHL microfilm 382,817.

Redstone Monthly Meeting, Brownsville, Pennsylvania, Minutes of the Men’s and Women’s meetings, 1793-1862., “Margaret Staats, formerly Chandler” disownment (1800); Redstone Monthly Meeting (Brownsville, Pennsylvania), citing typescript records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; FHL microfilm 382,817.


Which of these records, in the process of reassembling your ancestor’s lives, gives you a better picture of them as people? People with real lives and real problems. People who made mistakes. People who had the strength of character to overcome. People who helped make you who you are today. Always, always, always look for the original records. Their stories are there, waiting to be told. I just hope Grandma Staats doesn’t get mad at me for telling this part of hers. But you know what, it’s yet another example of a strong woman in my family standing up to adversity. Thirty-eight years later, her daughter, Edith (also my ancestor) fought an even tougher fight as a single, nineteen year-old mother with an out-of-wedlock child, and Margaret would take the stand in her daughter’s defense. (see “‘Because I Know He Is': Edith Staats vs. Jesse Pickering, 1838

How can I not be proud that these people are my ancestors? Rock on, Margaret and Edith, rock on.

Posted in Thoughts and Musings | 1 Comment

Corbit v. Corbit: Oh, the Family Stories Court Records Tell

While looking for case law to sort out an entirely different issue related to recording of deeds, I came across this fascinating story.1 It did nothing to help me in my particular dilemma, but illustrates what an underutilized source court reporters really are. I have no relation to this family, but can only imagine how excited I would be if I did, to add this to my family story.

It’s the story of Robert Corbit, born about 1790. Robert had accumulated quite a large real and personal estate.  He executed three deeds in 1871, at the age of 81, in which he divides his property between three sons, George, Adam, and James. The problem is that he had eleven living children at the time, and had long professed his desire that his children share and share alike after his decease. What happened?

You’ll have to read the court decision to know the answers. I call it a court decision, but that’s not really doing it justice– it’s a piece of prose. It’s a really, really well-written piece of prose. It may be a stupendous example, but even if it were less-well written, it is still a really good reminder of the sort of information we might be able to find about our own ancestors when we dig into these court reporters. The best part: many are available free to search and download on Google Books!

Do read the case. It’s fabulous. And then try to find your own family story in court reporters. Happy hunting!

  1. Corbit v. Corbit, 7 Ohio Dec. Reprint 692 (1879). []
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The Osborne Family: A St. Patty’s Day Tribute

Rather than indulging in green beer and other St. Patty’s Day shenanigans, I thought it better instead to briefly thank at least one of my many Irish families that left their homes, made it to America, and managed to survive in a challenging New World. The Osborne family that settled in Summerfield, Noble, Ohio is one of those families. Since Osborne happened to be my grandfather’s middle name, when I first became interested in genealogy, it was one of those surnames in which I just had a natural interest. I became even more interested thanks to the following passage from the History of Noble County (Archelaus Osborne is my gg grandfather):

The Osborns of this township were among the early Irish settlers coming originally from County Donegal The family consisted of Samuel Osborn Sr and six children— Mary, William, James, Samuel, Catharine (Crawford), and Elizabeth (Fearus). Of these two are living, both in this township. The family left Ireland in 1817. The father died in 1820 six weeks after coming to this country.

James Osborn, born in Ireland in 1798, came to America with the family and located with them in what is now Marion Township when all was wilderness. In 1830 he married Eliza Lingo/ Their children now living are Samuel M., Archelaus, and Hester A (Calland) in this county, and Ellen (Wilson), Kansas. The father died in 1883. His widow is still living with her son Archelaus.

The latter was born in 1840, and in 1862 enlisted in Company D, Ninety-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and was mustered out at the expiration of his term of service. He was in the battles of Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, the Atlanta campaign through the Carolinas, etc. In 1867 he married Eliza M. Hamilton. Six children, five living, viz: Anna L., Luella, James H, Charles E. and Hattie H.1

This passage, one of the very first things I found when I began researching, sent my imagination racing. Ireland? Donegal? I wanted to know more. As I learned a little bit more about these sorts of county histories and the fact they weren’t always accurate, I wanted to see if I could verify any of the information it provided. As luck would have it, I was able to find the passenger list for the Samuel Osborne family, entering the port of Philadelphia on the Schooner Jefferson 19 Jul 1820– just as the family history claimed. Some details are incorrect. Samuel Sr. should be 50, not 40, and his wife’s name is Ruth, not Mary. The three eldest children’s birth dates are all off by 2 years, but all of the children appear, in birth order, in the passenger record. Coupled with the family history stating that this is when the family arrived, it’s hard to conclude that this is any family but them:2



So that piece of the story seemed to be accurate, but what about the part where Samuel Sr. died six weeks after arriving in the country? For a newbie genealogist, without a single clue as to where he may have died, the fact that it was 1820, after all, and that Philadelphia was a mysterious land, it was a daunting task. Several years later, FamilySearch came to my rescue. An entry for Samuel Osborne appears in the “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915″ database. The Samuel in this record died 31 Aug 1820– exactly six weeks and three days after Samuel arrived on the Schooner Jefferson, and likely from a disease he contracted on that voyage to America.3



Samuel is buried in St. George’s Methodist Cemetery in Philadelphia.

The interesting thing is that although only in the country for a less than two weeks, the Samuel Osborne family actually appears in the 1820 Census, all of the children’s ages match, and all eight of the people in the household are “foreigners not naturalized”.4



Note their neighbor, William Springsteen. Maybe I can one day claim that my 4th grandfather once lived next door to Bruce Springsteen’s 3rd great grandfather!

So left alone with six children, albeit grown children, Ruth and the family made their way west into what was then Monroe County, Ohio, and what is now Summerfield, Noble, Ohio. Presumably, this was a path taken by other families that they knew. It’s unclear exactly when they arrived in Ohio, but Ruth purchased property there in Aug 1823.5 There were several Irish families arriving at this time, and eventually, when I actually have tome to research my own family, will begin to explore some of the connections between them.

The Noble County history goes on to say of son Samuel Osborne:

Samuel Osborn Sr was born in Ireland in 1800 and came to this country with the family. In one fall he walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and thence to Ohio where he entered the land on which he afterward located, then back to Pittsburgh, and again to this township. Such feats of pedestrianism would be considered marvelous in these days, but the pioneers were a hardy race and not afraid to encounter hardships.6

I can’t document that Samuel did in fact make the journey that this history claims. However, given everything else in the article is accurate, I am willing to go ahead and believe (though not actually assert) that this is true enough– it makes for a better story that way.

What I will assert is that the article is dead on when it states that the pioneers — my pioneers– were a hardy race, and I owe my very existence to their hardiness and ability to overcome hardship. And I would rather fill myself with all the pride that instills than any amount of green beer on St. Patty’s Day.
Though having finished today’s chores, I am definitely going to toast my Irish ancestors with a frothy pint. Cheers to the Osbornes and all those like them!

  1. L.H. Watkins, History of Noble County, Ohio: with portraits and biographical sketches of some of its pioneers and prominent men (Chicago: L.H. Watkins & Co., 1887), p. 391-2. []
  2. “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800-1882,” index and images, FamilySearch ( accessed 16 Mar 2013), Samuel Osborne family (1820), image 400. The original record was accessed via microfilm, but the copy made here is from the FamilySearch online record collections. []
  3. “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915,” index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 Mar 2013), Samuel Osborne, 1820, image 302. []
  4. 1820 U.S. census, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania population schedule, Penn Twp, p. 39A (handwritten), line 12, Samuel Osburn; digital images, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2013); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M33, roll M33_109. []
  5. Ruth Osborne (Monroe Co., Ohio) patent no. 819; U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “Patent Search,” digital images, General Land Office Records (http:// accessed 16 Mar 2013). []
  6. History of Noble County, Ohio, p.392. []
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Tough Choices, Goals, and Dreams

For the first time since starting this blog, I didn’t post at the beginning of the new year- reviewing my successes (or lack thereof) in meeting the previous years goals, and then laying out new ones for the twelve months ahead. It’s party because I was a little too busy to sit down and think it through, and partly because I was really conflicted in my planning. Whatever the exact goals, educational choices are going to impact the success of those goals.

In today’s genealogical world, there are so many opportunities to continue your education, meet other rabid genealogists, and really build some wonderful relationships. Questions have arisen such as: “Should I go to a conference or an institute,”  “which certificate program is right for me,” or “which certification/accreditation program might be the best fit?” It’s awesome that we have all these choices these days, although choosing one likely means you can’t choose the other. And that’s not to say you have to shell out a lot of cash to continue your education. The number of opportunities to learn for free or next-to-free has skyrocketed. ProGen, webinars, discussion groups, and other educational opportunities are all vying for our available “GenEd” time. Of course, there’s non-genealogy programs that also serve to enhance our skills and opportunities,

So it really comes down to choices – careful consideration of what you hope to accomplish, and what steps will ultimately give you the best shot at realizing those goals you’ve set.  I don’t believe there’s a science for this. If there was, being successful would be as easy and effort-free as following a flow chart. With all that in mind, here are some of my choices for the upcoming year. These aren’t my goals or dreams laid out in print, but rather some of the educational steps that I am taking towards those goals:

What I will be doing:

I’ve returned to school full-time to get my paralegal certificate. I’ve picked up quite a bit of forensic genealogy work over the past year, and having a certificate (and hopefully a credential at some point) that the legal profession recognizes can only help form relationships in that world. It can only help my research skills , knowledge of how the law influences records, and how to more effectively work the courthouse.

I filed for an extension for my BCG portfolio, and plan to finish this summer. It’s this decision that has driven many of the “things I’d love to do” into the “things I’m not going to do” category. Over spring break and the summer, I will be travelling to the places where the subjects of my case study and kinship determination lived to wrap up some holes in my research. This is probably the single most important genealogical think I will do this year.

I’m attending the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Cincinnati. This year’s conference features a great lineup of speakers. Oh, and I’m also a trustee now, so I kinda think I’m supposed to be there. I didn’t really attend last year’s conference for more that a few hours, as I couldn’t get out of work. However, those few hours seem to have been pretty productive, as they ultimately led to three articles for Family Tree Magazine, and a fourth that I’m supposed to be finishing as we speak.

I want to keep up with my volunteer commitments. With any luck, I can do all the above without either failing at one of them or having a nervous breakdown. Currently, I am the Great Lakes APG Chapter representative, seminar chair for the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Genealogy Committee, an OGS trustee-at-large, and newsletter editor for the East Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society newsletter. I also have a couple of smaller roles within those organizations.

What I won’t be doing

Having chosen the course above means I can’t choose some other things I’d dearly love to do. I won’t be:

Attending Samford. My top educational choice would have been Tom Jones’ writing class. Second would have been ESM’s advanced methodology class. I just felt that it was more important to take advantage of the time I have off over the summer, and money I have available, to finish my BCG portfolio work. I would also have to miss paralegal classes to travel and be gone that long. For that reason, I also will not be

Attending GRIP this summer. I would have loved to have taken Craig Scott’s military records class, or Rick Sayre’s land class, I do plan to stop over for dinner and an evening lecture – probably Michael Hait’s Monday evening lecture. Some of the research I have to do is in western PA, so I can do all that and get an early start researching on Tuesday morning.

So there you have it. It’s not a list of educational goals, but a list of educational actions – those actions that I thought the most likely to get me somewhere near where I hope and dream to eventually be. Let’s hope, that in the words of the Knight of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that I’ve “chosen wisely.”

Posted in Misc., Thoughts and Musings | 1 Comment

Q&A with Judy Russell: A Conversation About The Upcoming WRHS Seminar, “Genealogy And The Law”

Disclaimer: I am the seminar chairperson for the Western Reserve Historical Society and also chapter representative for the Great Lakes APG chapter. I also think Judy is pretty awesome.

In anticipation of Judy Russell’s upcoming Cleveland, Ohio appearances on April 12 and 13, 2013, I thought I’d share an interview I did with Judy that was originally published in the WRHS Genealogy Bulletin, republished here with permission.1 Yea, yea, it’s an advertisement, but ya know what? I really believe that providing top-notch speakers and presentations is pretty important to the advancement of our beloved field, so if posting about it helps further that goal, I’m willing to do it!

On Friday, April 12, the Great Lakes APG chapter is hosting Judy, who will be presenting “The ABC’s of DNA”. Information and registration can be found at:

On Saturday, April 13, Judy will be at the Western Reserve Historical Society presenting “Genealogy and the Law”. Information and registration can be found on the WRHS website at:

I’m so excited to be a part of the Cleveland genealogical community and to be able to offer excellent programming like this. Please come out and support us! If you think that this article would be of interest to your group or society’s readership, please feel free to reprint this (with proper attribution, of course.)


“Q&A with Judy Russell

By Chris Staats

The Genealogical Committee is looking forward to our Spring 2013 Seminar, Genealogy and the Law! The event features acclaimed speaker, Judy G. Russell, and will be held in the brand-new Learning Center Auditorium at the Western Reserve Historical Society on Saturday April 13, 2013 from 9 am to 4 pm. Judy will be presenting four presentations: Knowing the Law; Court Records and Family Stories; Widows, Orphans, and the Law; and Through the Golden Door: Immigration After the Civil War (1864-1924).

If you follow any genealogy blogs, you may know Judy G. Russell better as author of the Legal Genealogist blog.<>. She is an adjunct law professor at Rutgers University, as well as a BCG-certified genealogist. Recently, she was elected by her peers (some of the world’s premier genealogists) as the newest trustee and member of that board. More importantly, she’s as passionate about genealogy as they come, and equally as passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. This will be a unique opportunity to tap into the expertise that Judy not only offers as a lawyer and genealogist, but also as a terrific speaker. Judy was kind enough to field a few questions about the upcoming event to give people an idea what the seminar is all about, and what to expect on April 13th.

CS: Judy, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for folks who want to learn a little more about the upcoming  Genealogy and the Law seminar. First question (and I’ll need you to put your right hand on Evidence Explained for this one): Do you swear to tell the whole genealogical truth and nothing but the truth?

JGR: To the extent that direct, indirect, or negative evidence of the truth can be found in primary or secondary information in an original or derivative source, I do so swear, your Honor, sir.

CS: Law is often perceived as a complex, confusing subject. Exactly how much  “legalese”” will someone need to know prior to attending the seminar? Will they need to have passed the bar exam, or maybe be a full-time law student in order to understand what you’re talking about?

JGR: None. Seriously. My job isn’t to speak legalese; it’s to translate it into plain ordinary every-day English. My goal is that nobody, not one single person, will leave the presentations with the question “what does that mean” unanswered.

CS: This topic is a bit of a departure from the many ethnic-based seminars WRHS has offered in the past. People who have German ancestors see an obvious return in learning how to do German research. If someone has Irish family, they’ll attend an event that offers tips and techniques to find them. The benefit of a legal discussion may not be as obvious. Can you explain a little bit about the importance of the interaction between genealogy and the law, and how that interplay helps people researching their family history?

JGR: The fact is, just about every record we use as genealogists – from birth and death certificates in the United States to the German civil registration records those of us with German ancestors love  – exists because some law required it. Understanding the law that existed at the time and in the place where our ancestors lived helps us figure out not just what records exist, but also what those records are really telling us, and – best of all – what other records might be hiding somewhere that will tell us even more.

CS: What sorts of resources can people expect to learn about that will help them tap into and make sense of all that information?

JGR: We’ll be covering a wide variety of resources ranging from reading and understanding legal documents (what in the world is a scire facias anyway?) to specific go-to sources for the laws in effect when our ancestors lived and the legal records created for and about our ancestors. All of the resources help us focus on how to use the information in a practical way in our own family histories. Just as a few examples, in Knowing the Law, we’ll talk about how knowing one simple fact about the law helps prove that a woman in a will record had to be a niece, not a daughter. In Court Records and Family Stories, we’ll see how court minutes can tell us not just about who our ancestors were but about how they lived. In Widows, Orphans, and the Law, we’ll cover everything from what a widow’s dower rights were all about to what happened to children when a father died – and how that changed as time went on. And in  Through the Golden Door, we’ll see how it became harder and harder for our immigrant ancestors to come through that golden door to America  – and where to find out what the immigration laws were when your ancestors wanted to come here.

CS: Speaking of courts, the courthouse environment — the security checks, the rules, the language, clerks who don’t “speak” genealogy, heck, even the architecture itself can be intimidating to a new researcher. Any tips for a newbie (or otherwise frightened researcher) headed to the courthouse?

JGR: A little bit of homework can go a long way towards making that trip a lot less frightening. Just finding out in advance which office in the courthouse has which type of record (or even if the records are at the courthouse at all, since some get moved to archives or libraries), what hours the office is open, and what restrictions there may be on access can save a lot of time and anxiety. There’s usually some information on the county website about that, but getting in touch with the local genealogical societies and local genealogical librarians for help with the “rules of the road” for a specific office in a specific courthouse is always a good idea when planning a research visit.

CS: Being World Series time, I wonder:  You have a law degree, have practiced, and currently teach in that field. You are also a BCG-certified genealogist, and if that wasn’t enough, a new BCG trustee as well. If we have a World Series of Research pitting the genealogists against the lawyers, what are the strengths of each team, and who are you rooting for?

JGR: Objection! No fair, your Honor! I’m a switch-hitter! Okay, okay. Truth be told, each side has one major strength that the other can learn from. The lawyers’ team has the edge on understanding what any particular record may be telling us, because of that team’s background in the language and interpretation of the law. But lawyers are out to win, and sometime the truth isn’t on the lawyers’ side. The genealogists’ team has the edge on understanding that we win as family historians any time we find out the truth about what happened – even if it isn’t what we want to hear. As for who I’m rooting for, I have the right to remain silent because anything I say will be held against me…

CS: Follow up question: Many people, especially in Cleveland, are not particularly fond of lawyers or the Yankees. How do you plan to overcome this on April 13th?

JGR: Considering the Yankees’ performance this postseason, I’m going to be bringing my own individual-sized serving of humble pie. As for the lawyer thing, look at it this way: I have an almost unlimited repertoire of lawyer jokes…

CS: Judy, thank you for your time and for giving us a little look at what we can expect this spring. We’re really excited to be able to bring you to Cleveland, and can’t wait for your presentation!

JGR: I’m really looking forward to this trip, and excited for the opportunity to present to such a great audience!

 CS: The pleasure is all ours, Judy!

Registration is already open for this seminar and can be done quickly and easily online today! Visit for full details, presentation descriptions, and registration.  We hope to see you there!

Chris Staats is Seminar Chairperson for the Genealogical Committee”

  1. Chris Staats, “Q&A With Judy Russell,” WRHS Genealogy Bulletin 31-4 (Dec 2012):40. To subscribe, visit []
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Genealogy Mystery Theater: Addressing Identities

Merry Christmas everyone! I thought I’d try something new tonight. Once the presents are all unwrapped, the guests gone, and your belly full, I have a game we can play. You know those murder mystery theater things– ones where the audience gets to play along and guess the killer? That’s the idea here, only with genealogy mysteries. Hopefully a few of you will join in and play along. If there’s a good response, I’ll try and make this a regular feature and post pieces of problems that are common to research we all do. The level is beginning/intermediate, but anyone is welcome to join in!

What will you need to play along? For this mystery, you’ll probably need access to and/or I’ll give you one record and a problem to solve, and you’re all on your own to try and come up with a solution. Once you think you’ve got the answer, leave it in a comment along with a brief summary of why your answer is the correct one. If you don’t want to know the answer – or at least what someone else thinks is the answer – don’t look at the comments :)

Without further adieu, I present:

Addressing Identities- A Genealogy Mystery

Below is the 1850 New York, New York census record for John Cassidy and family.1 (Click for full size).

Of course, the 1850 census doesn’t record street addresses, but it’s interesting to know where our ancestors lived. More importantly, it’s also an important tool to sort out people of the same name. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine as accurately as possible the address where this Cassidy family resided. You may need to scroll a few pages backwards and forwards in the census to get your bearings. You can access the page on Ancestry here. Good luck! Bonus question: Which direction was the enumerator moving?


Did you find this interesting? Let me know your thoughts!

  1. 1850 U.S. census, New York, New York, population schedule, New York, dwelling 164, family 467, John Cassidy household; digital images, ( : accessed 5 Sep 2012); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432. []
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