Category Archives: Research Methods

Evaluating DNA matches: Part Two

Catedral Santa Ana in San Francisco de Macoris. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

My last post discussed how corresponding with autosomal matches may add additional ancestors to your research when family names or places have been forgotten. This post builds on that idea with how you might be able to assist others in adding ancestors to their family tree.

Responding to messages from autosomal matches can have their frustrations. I manage over sixty accounts and frequently the messages I receive do not indicate which account they match. Frequently the amount of shared DNA is simply too small for me to be able to provide any meaningful assistance. (I’ll respond as best I can.) Continue reading Evaluating DNA matches: Part Two

Evaluating DNA matches: Part One

Last November, I participated in an online panel discussion – Discussing DNA: Finding Unexpected Results – with authors Libby Copeland and Bill Griffeth, talking about some of the ramifications of genetic surprises that have come about from commercial DNA testing. I probably learn about these more than others, given my profession, and my own family is no exception.[1] However, your autosomal DNA matches also have the ability to find genealogical connections when someone’s recent family history has been lost, perhaps owing to family members dying young and later generations not learning of certain details to help find their ancestors in available records. These tests can sometimes be a time-saving genealogical shortcut in such cases. Continue reading Evaluating DNA matches: Part One

No detail too small

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When I started researching family history more than twenty years ago, I was eager to find out about my great-grandfather Gerardo Smaldone, who emigrated from Italy to America. Where did he come from? When did he emigrate? Did other members of his family come too? I hoped immigration records would answer these questions. Unfortunately, before the twentieth century, passenger lists did not provide much information, but at least one could glean a passenger’s age, occupation, marital status, native country, destination, whether he or she was in transit or intending to stay in the U.S., what compartment they stayed in, and how much baggage accompanied them. Genealogists likely pay close attention to most of these details, but why care about baggage?! Amazingly, in Gerardo’s case, such trivial information was to prove decisive in determining when he immigrated to America. Continue reading No detail too small

Mitochondrial prospects

My mother’s great-grandmother Mary Bethiah Paine (1848–1933).

With the new start of a new year (and decade), I always make genealogical resolutions. Often these renewed exercises in persistence focus on long-standing unsolved puzzles. At the top of my list, my mother’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Jane Durin. Inspired by several articles in Nexus almost twenty years ago that outlined various contributors’ matrilineal ascents, I worked out my own matrilineal line that hit the brick wall with Jane’s marriage in 1667. My documentation for each successive generation looked reliable, especially since most of the marriages were recorded in town vital or church records: Continue reading Mitochondrial prospects

2020: the year in review

Plymouth Harbor. Photo courtesy of James Heffernan

As we reach the end of this extraordinary year – one marked by titanic public stresses and private losses – it is time to review a few of the blog posts that appeared in Vita Brevis in 2020. Most posts, of course, concerned genealogical pointers and results, but some addressed the current moment, when so much of our time was spent solitary and in front of a computer screen.

Of course, at the start of 2020 the blog – and NEHGS – focused on twin anniversaries: the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1620, and the 175th birthday of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in 1845. Continue reading 2020: the year in review

Billingtons three

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As my final 2020 post relating to this year’s anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, I’ll reminisce about how I found my own Mayflower line, somewhat accidentally, after nearly two decades of genealogical research. The families of my paternal grandfather, whose ancestors never left New England, actually had a tradition that they did not have any Mayflower ancestors. Early on in my researches, my aunt and I briefly thought we identified a descent from Stephen Hopkins, but we quickly realized it was a collection of mistaken connections. Over the years, I found a descent from brothers of Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and John Howland, and from a cousin of Henry Samson. All close, but no direct ancestors on Plymouth’s first English ship. Continue reading Billingtons three

Ten questions for your Zoom holiday

This year promises to be one unlike any other for the holidays. Many families will get together virtually this season, an unfamiliar way to gather for many of us. Despite the different circumstances, this season can still be a time to share stories of family history. Here are ten questions to ask relatives during this year’s Zoom holiday. Continue reading Ten questions for your Zoom holiday

Ghost towns

In genealogy, it is not unusual for individuals or families to simply disappear from all records without a trace. Entire towns falling off the map, however, is a far less common occurrence. Occupying nearly 3.8 million square miles, it is hardly surprising that a large portion of the United States is uninhabited, but over the course of the last four centuries there have been many communities that were once populated, only to be abandoned for any number of reasons. The people who lived in these communities often found themselves relocating to other towns, bringing the memories of their former home with them. Continue reading Ghost towns

‘Struggle with a vixen’

“Paternity Concealed & Revealed: The Case of Julia Smith of Rutland, Vermont,” published in American Ancestors, recounts one of my wildest rides in Vermont research.[i] Why did Julia Smith of Rutland hide her true identity? My investigation proved that Julia was the daughter of English convict Emanuel Abrahams, a London Jew, who spent two decades in Queen Victoria’s prisons. After emigrating to Vermont in the late 1870s, Emanuel assumed the name John Smith and married Mary Dougherty, an Irish Catholic, twenty-five years his junior—theirs an unlikely union for that time, with disparities of culture, religion, and age. Continue reading ‘Struggle with a vixen’

Finding confirming information

Researching someone with a common name can be challenging. Sometimes you will find too many records, and without more identifying information it can be almost impossible to determine which is the correct record. Or, if you do find a promising record, how do you know if it is for the person being researched or someone else with the same name? To overcome these problems, you need to find enough information to come to a solid conclusion.

I had this problem recently while researching Charles McDermott, who lived in New York City. I found a possible naturalization record for Charles in 1896. The record showed this Charles was about the right age and had immigrated around the right year. Continue reading Finding confirming information