Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Free Webinar on Conducting Oral Histories

Talking to relatives about their lives is one of the best ways to learn more information, especially great stories, about your family.  The Jewish Women's Archive is offering a free Webinar on how to lead an oral history project.  It will be primarily geared to working with students, but the description also mentions working with your community, so I'm sure the techniques discussed will be useful for almost any genealogist.

The Webinar will take place twice on Thursday, November 6, to accommodate more people's schedules.  You can attend from 10:00–11:00 a.m. or 5:00–6:00 p.m., U.S. Pacific time.  The registration forms have a handy little pull-down list that shows what times those are in pretty much any time zone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Digitize and Share Those Newspapers!

Tonight on Antiques Roadshow I watched the first of three episodes from Jacksonville, Florida.  One of the items appraised was a bound collection of original copies of a newspaper running from 1861–1865.  The Family Friend was published in Monticello, Florida.  The appraiser, Ken Gloss, explained that this is a particularly rare find because it was a Confederate newspaper.  As the war went on the Confederacy ran out of supplies for everything and publishing a newspaper probably was not a high priority, so it's pretty impressive that this one had issues in 1865.  There are even two copies of the issue reporting on Abraham Lincoln's assassination, though it appeared almost two weeks after the fact, because news traveled slowly in those days.

The Family Friend appears in the newspaper directory that is part of the Library of Congress Chronicling America Web site.  While the site is known primarily for its collection of online digitized newspapers, it also includes the directory, a listing of newspapers that were published in the United States, not only those that have been digitized.  The only known issues listed in the directory are from February 22, 1859 to December 24, 1861 at the University of Florida in Gainesville and one issue, January 16, 1864, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.  The Florida Digital Newspaper Library at the University of Florida has 140 issues of The Family Friend digitized, apparently the issues listed in the Chronicling America directory.  The copies the guest on Antiques Roadshow owns may be the only ones still in existence for the later dates.  I checked the lists of newspapers on,, and, and it does not appear on any of them.

So my question is, who knows this man, and how do we convince him that the newspapers need to go somewhere where everyone can read them — such as being digitized and placed online?  Assuming that he still has the book, of course.  I hope he didn't simply place them in an auction to be sold to the highest bidder, then to be hidden away in someone's personal library.  I know the filming was done during the summer of 2013, so he's had a year — what has happened with those newspapers?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Roots: Our Journeys Home" - Anthony Bourdain

So CNN decided to jump into the genealogy program pond also.  It began a theme week of programs featuring family history journeys, Roots:  Our Journeys Home, on October 12 with Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown.  The idea is that hosts of several of their regular programs will take some kind of genealogical journey and learn about their roots.  Instead of creating a stand-alone program, the family history apparently will be integrated into the existing programs.

If the genealogical search in Parts Unknown is comparable to what will happen in the other programs, I'd say there's not much worth watching.  The promo material from the CNN Web site said that we would see an "investigation into the puzzling history of the Bourdain’s great, great, great, grandfather, Paraguayan émigré Jean Bourdain" (let's ignore the poor editing, shall we?).  Unfortunately, the amount of time devoted to Bourdain's family history was less than ten minutes (and possibly as low as five minutes) of the one-hour episode.

Bourdain already knew that his great-great-great-grandfather, Jean Bourdain, had immigrated to South America from France sometime during the 1850's and had disappeared by the 1880's.  Jean went to Argentina first and then to Paraguay, and after that the family didn't know what had happened to him or when or how he died.  Bourdain said he really wanted to know how his third-great-grandfather had died and where he was buried.

We learned quite a bit about the history and food of Paraguay, which is what the program normally is about anyway.  (Because I'm a language geek, one of the most interesting factoids for me was that Paraguay is the only country in South America to have an indigenous language as an official language.)  But what did we learn about Jean Bourdain?

There was a French colony in the Paraguayan jungle called Nouveau Bordeaux.  Bourdain and a guide visited what is left of the colony, but they didn't actually say there was evidence that Jean Bourdain went there.  It seemed that only three documents were found that mentioned Jean Bourdain:

• something that appeared to be a letter that said Jean's son, also named Jean, had gone to Montevideo, Uruguay in 1860 to work with his uncle in the hat business
• information from somewhere that said Jean the elder had come with 200 boxes of "fireworks" (which generated a discussion of whether they really were fireworks, which the locals couldn't have afforded, or if the word was a euphemism for weapons and Jean was actually a gun-runner of some sort)
• an 1858 death record for Jean the elder that did not give a cause of death

The researchers were able to determine in which cemetery Jean was interred but could not find his grave.  Bourdain walked around the Recoleta Cemetery in Asunctión, found nothing, and looked disappointed.  The researcher told Bourdain that it was likely that something else had been built over whatever grave Jean Bourdain had.

And that was it.  Not a very impressive beginning, in my opinion.  And I'm left wondering why the family didn't know when Jean the elder had died, since Jean the younger didn't leave the area until two years later.

I'll still try to watch some of the programs scheduled for later in the week.  I am pretty sure I'll miss every episode of New Day; 6:00 a.m. makes it way too early for me, whether it's Eastern or Pacific Time.  It's a shame, because Chris Cuomo's story sounds interesting, and I'm wondering if the Spinozas from whom John Berman descended were Sephardic Jews.  But I've already put the programs that air later in the day on my schedule.  I am particularly looking forward to the journeys of Wolf Blitzer and Sanjay Gupta.  And maybe I can catch the others later On Demand.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Finding Your Roots" Begins Its New Season

The new season of Finding Your Roots has started, but I'm running a week behind on viewing, because PBS is airing the program against NCIS.  I'm sorry, but I've found it easier to watch Finding Your Roots at alternative times than to wait for NCIS to appear in my On Demand menu.  So maybe I'm not totally obsessed by genealogy after all.

As anyone knows who has watched both programs, the premises behind Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? are very different.  A WDYTYA celebrity starts out by talking about a specific question he wants to know the answer to or wondering if something in her family background has any relationship to what she is like.  The program sends its celebrities around the country and sometimes the world in search of documents, even though they are not doing the research themselves.  We watch the process of discovery and follow one clue to another (though as I often comment, the path shown may have huge leaps and departures from logic).  The question voiced at the beginning is handled by the end of the episode.

In Finding Your Roots, on the other hand, we do not see any of the research.  Each episode has a theme of some sort and three to four celebrities whose stories tie into that theme.  It would appear that the theme and a predetermined narrative are chosen, and the producers then look for celebrities whose storeis fit, though it's possible they have a pool of celebrities they research and then put together themes and narratives based on what they find.  Our host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presents each celebrity with a completed book, and during the episode a few items are highlighted and sometimes discussed.  We are completely removed from the research process and rarely have knowledge of how information was discovered or how one piece connects to another.  We're very much on the outside looking in.  From my perspective as a genealogist, there's little to comment on, because it is impossible to follow the flow of research.  All that's left is an entertainment piece and possibly finding out about a new research resource, such as the episode featuring Sanjay Gupta, in which I learned about the existence of some written family records for Indians prior to Partition.

So far I have seen only the first episode of the new season, "In Search of Our Fathers", featuring Stephen King, Gloria Reuben, and Courtney Vance.  For differing reasons, each of the celebrity guests grew up not knowing their fathers.  As expected, various discoveries were made about their fathers, and they came away knowing more than they had.  But some things puzzled me.  For example, Gloria Reuben said that she had not been able to learn the names of her father's parents from her mother.  The way the story was presented, it appeared that Reuben's parents had married in Canada.  Canada's marriage licenses require both parties to list their parents' names.  So why was the information not available from that resource?  Did they not marry in Canada?  Did they marry at all?

Then I thought that several parts were phrased poorly.  When discussing King's father's decision to change his name from Pollock, Gates acted surprised that the researchers were not able to find out why he changed it.  What's the big surprise?  It's rare to find documentation of a name change in the early 20th century for anyone.  When Gates talked about the influenza pandemic, he said it "wreaked havoc across the country."  That's quite an understatement, considering that part of the pandemic's infamy comes from the fact that it was worldwide.  And when speaking of Vance's father, in the beginning Gates said he was a foster child, then later used the word adopted without any explanation for the change in terminology.  The foster care system and adoption are very different legally and emotionally for the people involved; the terms are not interchangeable.

On a personal level, I don't like hopping back and forth between each celebrity's story.  I find that technique merely emphasizes the lack of continuity that is inherent in not following the research process.  I find Gates' habit of reading directly from his notes to be somewhat stilted.  I also don't like Gates' heavy reliance on DNA and how much credibility he gives autosomal results.  Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, has explained very clearly that these numbers are essentially "cocktail party conversation" and nothing more.  On the other hand, something I really enjoy about Finding Your Roots is that since it's on PBS, I don't have to suffer through an Ancestry ad during every commercial break; they're limited to one appearance in each of the beginning and ending underwriter sequences.

Monday, September 29, 2014

So You Want to Learn How to Do Swedish Research?

We are lucky at the Oakland (California) FamilySearch Library to have very strong support for Swedish family research.  Along with some subscription databases not available at most FamilySearch Centers, two members of our staff have a dedicated day each week for Swedish research.  One or both of them are available all day to assist beginning and experienced researchers with their Swedish family history.

Last year our library was part of the tour the SwedGen team made through the U.S.  That was for an advanced research seminar.  This year we are hosting a beginning Swedish research class on Saturday, October 18, 2014, from 10:30 a.m.–12:00 noon.  If you have wanted to start your Swedish research but weren't sure what to do, this class is for you.  It is designed not only to help you find your ancestors, but also to get in touch with living relatives.

The class is free, but preregistration is required.  Send a message to

The Oakland FamilySearch Library is at 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, CA 94602.  There is a large parking lot available.  Public transportation is more difficult, but AC Transit has one line that goes up Lincoln from the Fruitvale BART station.  Information on how to make that connection is in my post on using BART to get to East Bay genealogy research locations.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Search for a Photo of a Bride Wearing Her Wedding Veil

A friend of mine, Sheri Fenley, is looking for a photograh of a bride wearing her wedding veil.

While I'm sure the bride was beautiful, what's actually more important here is her veil.

The bride was Jeanette Augusta Meier.  She was the daughter of Abe Meier and Minnie Eisig, and the granddaughter of Aaron Meier and Augusta Hirsch.  Aaron Meier started the Meier & Frank stores in Portland, Oregon in 1857.  The family was Jewish and from Bavaria.  They were early pioneers of Portland and prominent socially.

Jeanette married Walter David Heller on November 14, 1922 in Portland.  He was the son of Moses Heller and Adele Walter, and the grandson of Martin Heller and Babette Kuper.  Martin Heller was a Bavarian Jew who came to San Francisco in the 1850's.  He was president of Congregation Emanuel in San Francisco from 1876 until his death in 1894.  The Heller family was also socially prominent.

The veil that Jeanette wore on her wedding day has been worn by 48 members of the family and extended family at their own weddings.  Jeanette's granddaughter is helping her mother put together a scrapbook that will stay with the wedding veil as it continues to be passed down through the generations.  They have a photograph of every single bride who wore the veil — except for Jeanette Augusta Meier Heller.

So I am helping spread the word about the search for a photo.

Since the bride was from Oregon and the groom from California, Sheri has been trying to cover both areas.  She has searched these newspaper collections online:
• Chronicling America,
• Historic Oregon Newspapers,
• Californai Digital Newspaper Collection,
• ProQuest Historic San Francisco Chronicle online

She found several articles about the wedding, but no photos.  She has also contacted the Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon, the Oregon Jewish Museum, and the Oregon Historical Society, and no luck there either.

The best remaining possibility would seem to be the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library on the University of California at Berkeley campus.  Among the items in the collection are a card index for the Emanu–El newspaper and the complete historical run of the paper.  I'm sure the wedding was reported in the newspaper; maybe there's a photo?  That index would be really convenient to check, but the staff at Bancroft said that, "Unfortunately the materials are as yet unprocessed and there's no way of telling whether this collection contains the photo you are looking for."  Well, the index has been catalogued and some parts of the collection have been processed; many of us have been waiting patiently for several years for the rest of the Magnes Collection to be accessioned at Bancroft, i.e., made accessible for researchers.  The Bancroft staff apparently have been busy with lots of other things and somehow just haven't gotten around to finishing this task.

There are a couple of other possibilities for the Emanu-El newspaper.  According to the Chronicling America database, both the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the New York Public Library have the newspaper for 1922, JTS in hard copy and NYPL on microfilm.  Neither has an index, of course, but they could be searched manually.  But access is difficult for us, as Sheri and I are both in California.

And there's always a small chance that someone out there who was connected with the Heller and/or Meier families has a photo in a collection at home.  The more people share this story, the better the odds that anyone who might have a photo hears about the search.

So here goes my shot in the dark.  Let's see where it lands.