Military Ancestry

Bogus Stories Complicate Search for Military Ancestry

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Richard Hite’s book, Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends, entitled “Military Service of Ancestors.” As Mr. Hite points out, bogus stories of military ancestors can confound family historians, and make tracing your military ancestry a much murkier and more difficult task. However, confounding stories of military forebears illustrates just one way genealogists can be lead down the primrose path in their research. Mr. Hite’s acclaimed book, Sustainable Genealogy is full of such cautionary tales and ways to avoid pitfalls and missteps. 

When I hear of some of the wildly exaggerated claims of the military exploits of my own ancestors and anyone else’s, I am reminded of “The Battle of Mayberry” episode of the Andy Griffith Show.  In one episode, Opie’s class was assigned to write an essay about the so-called “Battle of Mayberry” which had involved the early settlers of the town of Mayberry and the Native American population two centuries earlier.  Andy and Aunt Bea immediately told Opie about his own ancestor, Colonel Carlton Taylor who, by their account, played a leading role in the battle.  Opie then went on to talk to all of the major characters in the town  . . . [who] all told stories about ancestors who held the rank of “Colonel” at the time of the battle.  All of them described the settlers winning the battle with only fifty armed men facing 500 Native Americans.  Andy, realizing Opie’s confusion over the conflicting accounts, took him to visit a local Native American named Tom Strongbow . . .  who told of his own ancestor, Chief Strongbow, leading fifty warriors to a victory over 500 armed settlers.  . . .  Finally, Andy took Opie to Raleigh, North Carolina, the state capital, to give him an opportunity to look up contemporary accounts of the battle.  What Opie found was a newspaper account that told of a dispute that started over a cow accidentally killed by a Native American in Mayberry.  Instead of fighting a battle though, fifty settlers and fifty braves settled the dispute by sharing several jugs of liquor and killing some deer to compensate the owner of the cow.

From Private to Major

That whole story is, of course, fictitious but exaggerated accounts of ancestors’ military exploits are a dime a dozen in oral history whether “truly oral” or “written oral.”  One of the most common mistakes is an inflated rank assigned to an ancestor.  A likely source of this, particularly for Civil War soldiers, stems from the late 19th and early 20th century habit of referring to elderly veterans of that war as “Colonel” or “Major” – even for those that never rose above the rank of private.  This was most common for Confederate veterans, but Union veterans were also referred to by these honorary titles in some instances.  It is easy for overeager descendants who hear an ancestor referred to by an honorary rank to jump to the conclusion that he actually did hold such a rank while in the service.  Usually, these claims of such high rank are relatively easy to check, especially for Civil War soldiers.  Records for soldiers in earlier wars are not so voluminous but there are many, nonetheless.  Service records and pension applications give the ranks soldiers achieved and it is not at all unusual to learn that an honorary major never actually rose above the rank of private.  In the case of common names, proof (or disproof) may be a bit more of a challenge.  A descendant of a private named John Smith will undoubtedly have little trouble finding a colonel or a major with that rank in some regiment from the state their own ancestor served from.  In this kind of a case, researchers should examine the economic circumstances of the ancestors, before and after the war.  Assuming that a man named John Smith, who owned less than fifty dollars’ worth of real estate at the time of the 1860 and 1870 census enumerations held the rank of “Colonel” during the Civil War is not a leap of faith I would make. Continue reading…

Tidewater Virginia Families, Jamestown

Tidewater Virginia Families

The late Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis was a leading authority on the earliest inhabitants of Jamestown and the entire Tidewater region of Virginia. Her most famous book on this area of research was the diminutive volume, Jamestowne Ancestors, 1607-1699, a list of approximately 1,200 persons who are known to have landed or resided there between 1607 and 1699. Mrs. Davis was a member of the Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters, Order of First Families of Virginia, The Jamestowne Society, and The James Cittie Company. Jamestowne Ancestors, meanwhile, recounts the establishment of England’s first successful colony in North America, as Mrs. Davis describes it in her Preface:

“King James I in 1606 issued a charter authorizing a group of investors to form the Virginia Company of London and settle colonists in North America. It was thus that his dream was fulfilled and James Towne was born. A council appointed by the king was to direct the enterprise from England, with management of day-to-day affairs in the colony entrusted to a second council of state. The charter provided that these English settlers would enjoy the same legal rights and privileges as those who remained at home.

“On Saturday the twentieth of December 1606 a fleet of three ships left England.   After an arduous ocean voyage, 104 English colonists aboard the ‘Susan Constant,’ ‘Godspeed,’ and ‘Discovery’ reached the Virginia coast at Cape Henry. Sailing west up the river they named for their king, these men and boys stepped ashore on May 14, 1607, at the marshy peninsula now known as Jamestown Island. In time, ‘James Towne’ survived and prospered, but at first the triangular wooden palisade fort held only a tenuous foothold on the vast continent.

Jamestowne Ancestors honors the island’s early settlers and their contributions, to Virginia and the future nation. The volume includes all inhabitants of Jamestown Island–both year-round residents and members of the House of Burgesses or other government officials–who dwelled at Jamestown between 1607 and 1699. The author identifies each individual by name, occupation (burgess, landowner, artisan, etc.), year(s) present in Jamestown, and, in the case of officials, a place of permanent residence. The author includes only those colonists whose presence at Jamestown has been fully documented. Her list can be used as a starting point for achieving membership in a number of hereditary societies that accept descent from Jamestown as a qualification. (A list of 16 such organizations is included in the book.)

Replete with facsimiles of early maps and diagrams and drawing upon recent archaeological research, Jamestowne Ancestors is one of the most comprehensive lists of our oldest Tidewater Virginia Families ever published.

Mrs. Davis authored additional publications that are invaluable resources for those searching for their roots buried within Virginia’s First Families. Covering an incredible 375 years, Tidewater Virginia Families sets forth the genealogical history of some 37 families who have their roots in Tidewater Virginia. Starting with the earliest colonial settler, the origins of the following Tidewater families are presented: Bell, Binford, Bonner, Butler, Campbell, Cheadle, Chiles, Clements, Cotton, Dejarnette(att), Dumas, Ellyson, Fishback, Fleming, Hamlin, Hampton, Harnison, Harris, Haynie, Hurt, Hutcheson, Lee, Mosby, Mundy, Nelson, Peatross, Pettyjohn, Ruffin, Short, Spencer, Tarleton, Tatum, Taylor, Terrill, Watkins, Winston, and Woodson.

Going beyond her work in Tidewater Virginia Families, Mrs. Davis meticulously researched and compiled Tidewater Virginia Families: Generations BeyondIn this supplement, the author added 11 new families to the Tidewater Virginia families treated in the original volume described above: Alsobrook, Bibb, Edwards, Favor, Gray, Hux, Ironmonger, Laker, Southern, Taylor, and Woolfolk. In addition, this supplement includes vignettes and anecdotes of family life, descriptions and locations of family homes and burial sites, extensions of sibling lines, identification of neighbors, county maps, a place-name index, and, where necessary, corrections and updates to the original volume.

If your family ties lead you to Albemarle Parish, The Albemarle Parish Vestry Book 1742-1786 is one of the priceless original public records of the Old Dominion that survived the vicissitudes of time, wars, invasions, fire, and neglect. It is widely available to researchers owing to the transcription efforts of Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis and Andrew Wilburn Hogwood. The Vestry Book–which includes the proceedings of the vestry as well as many records of the processioners’ returns–begins on November 16, 1742 (with some earlier pages missing), some four years after the parish’s formation, and runs to 1786. Roughly 6,500 Surry/Sussex county inhabitants are identified.

Image Credit: Map of Virginia, discovered and as described by Captain John Smith, 1606; engraved by William Hole. Map created in 1606. Public Domain, Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Death Records

Death Records: Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Own

Editor’s Note: William Dollarhide knows how to organize, manage and execute a genealogy project. His tricks, rules and witty tips provide valuable guidance to genealogy researchers at all levels. Following are his ten documents every genealogist should own and tips on where to find them:

Go Get the Death Records!

A death certificate is not enough, and it might not even be correct. If you know a person’s exact date and place of death, then you have several more sources pertaining to a person’s death. If you can obtain these other death records, you will certainly learn more about your ancestors.

Here are ten places to look for a death record. All ten sources should be obtained for every ancestor on your pedigree chart and every member of a family on your family group sheet.

1. Death Certificates. A rule in genealogy is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals. That means you need to obtain genealogical sources for all of them. For instance, for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every brother or sister of an ancestor, you need to obtain a death certificate (assuming they are dead). If there were six siblings in an ancestor’s family, a death certificate for each sibling will give six different sources about the same parents, places where the family lived, names of spouses, names of cemeteries, names of funeral directors, and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, for example, a sibling’s death certificate might give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the site, where detailed information about accessing death records can be found. It is a free-access website, and all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories or possessions are represented. Always start with a death certificate because the names, dates, and places you will find on a death certificate will lead you to further records.

2. Funeral Records. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. Find a current funeral home in North America at This site has the listings from a directory of funeral homes called “The Yellow Book.” A funeral record may include names of survivors, names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses, and, often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the deceased and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery can be found here as well. Generally, funeral directors are very easy to talk to and very cooperative. Even if the old name of a funeral home is not listed in a current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. Funeral homes rarely go out of business but, more often, are taken over by another funeral director. If at one time a town had two or three funeral homes, but only one today, the “Yellow Book” listing is still the source for finding the current funeral home in that town because it can lead you to information about the older funeral home. Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

3. Cemetery Records. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record, that cemetery is now a source of information about the person who died. There may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery, or off-site at a caretaker’s home; and the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried and whether the funeral home has an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or at least know who might be the keeper of records for the cemetery. At the same time, ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers/stone masons who cater to cemeteries in the area. As a back-up, a local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone. To locate a cemetery anywhere in the U.S., a special list can be obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) within their Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The GNIS contains the names of over two million place names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries. Visit the GNIS website and click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery. Continue reading…

historic german newspapers online

Historic German Newspapers Online

When researching your German heritage, utilizing historic german newspapers is just as useful as using an English language counterpart. There can be additional challenges should your research need to be conducted with some German language familiarity (though there are resources to make that easier too! See our post But I can’t speak German! The challenge of German Genealogy for more information), so we like any tools that will make research easier. Author Ernest Thode’s new guide, Historic German Newspapers Online can serve as an invaluable key to a mother lode of information found in German-language papers. As the author explains below:

“Few historic German newspapers have been digitized until the past few years, though most current German newspapers have published electronic editions for more than a decade. As I began collecting information, [on papers with a history of at least 50 years] I was astounded to learn how many German papers are digitally online. They are truly worldwide, from Tanunda, Australia; Morogoro, Tanzania; Zhelezhnodororozhny, Russia; Tsientsin, China; and El Reno, Oklahoma, USA. Mostly they are accessible, put online by national libraries, universities, and museums, even international consortia such as Europeana. Some sites have more than 100 titles, such as Compact Memory and ANNO (hosted by the Austrian National Library), with titles from the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. I have found 2,000 digitized titles online at numerous public, private, and commercial sites . . . .”

What sorts of genealogical information can you find in these newspapers? To quote the author, “You can sometimes find baptisms and weddings from churches, especially in capital city papers; births, marriages, and deaths from civil registrations; intentions to emigrate, especially in governmental papers; auctions; wanted criminals, police gazettes; general advertisements; trade news in trade journals; lists of church donors; lists of compensation paid to fire and storm victims, in governmental papers; lists of spa visitors (in papers in spa cities); lists of appointments to office, promotions, transfers, retirements, and deaths; estate sales; lists of hotel guests; lists of pupils (and their parents) in annual school reports; and a multitude of everyday notices. There are also unexpected finds pertaining to the USA, such as a list of Waldeck soldiers in North America found in a Waldeck government paper; the engagement in Newark, New Jersey, of a couple from Kesmark, Slovakia; and a description of emigrants headed for Cincinnati in an emigration paper. These are gems you cannot afford to miss. You need to look for the regional paper for your ancestor’s German county seat, the government paper (Bavaria, Baden, Hessen, a Prussian province, etc.), and the daily paper of the closest large city for your ancestor.”

Ernest Thode’s Historic German Newspapers Online indicates newspaper title, place of publication, date range, and website; you’ll be amazed at the range of information available to you online in German-language newspapers. Even better, these newspapers not only contain clues relating to the whereabouts of your forebears but also provide context for the life and times of your ancestors.

Image Credit: By German newspaper, 1834. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The cartoon reads: “Is it the wagon that is too big or the Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe that is too small? German cartoon from 1834 pocking fun at the number of micro states and customs barriers before the adoption of a German custom union (Zoolverein).”

Old newspapers, Newspaper genealogy,

Newspaper Research Contest

We here at believe in and have written about the awesome information trove stored in old newspapers, both in the US and abroad. In conjunction with their upcoming Newspaper Research Strategies Boot Camp January 30th and 31st (click here for more information and to register) Hack Genealogy is holding their first contest of 2015. Their Newspaper Research Contest has genealogy and family history related prizes are valued at over $600. The following is from the original Hack Genealogy post, but the prizes are so great we want to share this info with our readers too!

The prizes in the Newspaper Research Contest are amazing thanks to the generous support of the prize donors. Take a look at this list!

  • Find My Past: A 12-month World Subscription (value $199 USD)
  • Inside History Magazine: A 12-month digital subscription to Inside History magazine for iPad or Android (value $32 USD)
  • MyHeritage: A 1 year subscription to MyHeritage Premium Plus and Data Plan package (value $249 USD)

The entire prize package is valued at over $650 USD. We’ll select seven (7) individual winners for different prizes, each of which are valued between $10 USD and $250 USD. You could win one or more of these prizes! We’ll draw separate winners for each prize on Tuesday 3 February 2015 and announce the winners here on the contest page and via social media.

This contest is NOT limited to just those in the United States either! All of the prizes are digital items or memberships and can easily be sent to the winners via email!

Enter the Newspaper Research Contest Today!

Remember to click here to enter and once you’ve entered, make sure you tell your friends . . . you earn extra entry tickets for each person you refer. And share the contest on Facebook and Twitter to earn even more entries!

Good luck! Please let us know if you enter and win!

Image Credit: By Boston Gazette [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons