Your Family Tree #11 – Using Genealogy Websites

There are many free genealogy websites which are a great resource for records and helpful family data, including RootsWeb. This free site, part of the family, includes a “Getting Started” section with their “guide to tracing family trees.” The latter has great tips on how to begin, a list of sources and where to find various records, and a list of various countries/ethnic groups. Clicking on any of these hi-lited items will provide information on beginning your research.

Unfortunately, in checking the RootsWeb site to update this article, I learned they’re in the process of making website repairs. Feel free to check them out for their explanatory letter as some functions may be up and running while other functions will gradually return for usage as they make repairs.  I do, however, review other free websites below that will be very helpful to your family search.

RootsWeb has a section entitled “Searches.” This includes surname listings you can peruse to see what might be out there. My favorite section was the “U.S. Town/County Database.” Here, I have found a wealth of information for vital records from churches and cemeteries, biographies, family lineages, and more. Researching my early New York families often brought me to the Albany, Schenectady and Schoharie county genweb sites.

The next section is labeled “Family Trees (World Connect).” You can search family trees generously submitted by other researchers. I did find errors in submitted family trees when I began my research, prompting my own research to document, write and publish my family articles. For that reason, I tend to stay away from this section in seeking information on my ancestors. I prefer to do as much footwork as I can on my own, albeit with guidance from friends who taught me as I learned along the way. Submitted trees certainly can be entirely accurate; however, if used as a starting point with other online records, you can then seek sources to provide solid documentation and corroborative proof, i.e. church and cemetery records in reputable books or journals, census records, wills, etc.

The next section is “Mailing Lists.” These lists are also invaluable. I was formerly on an email list which provided discussions on various topics relating to the early settlers and records of the 1600s and 1700s in New Netherlands/New York. It was a rewarding experience to reply to someone’s query by contributing data I have in a book of ancient Albany’s city and county records that was helpful to others.

From RootsWeb, I had subscribed years ago to the Schoharie County email list. That resource was where I saw the notice by a professor from Long Island who found an old photo in a Washington, D.C. antique shop. The pencil writing on the back of the matting read, “First Tillapaugh Reunion July 1910…” I replied that my mother’s two oldest brothers inherited that farm, and their sons continue to farm it today. A reproduction of the photo is in the Dallenbach book of descendants which I own, so I was well aware of what the professor had found. In fact, the house in the photo, built in the 1830s, is still very much in use today. I was offered the opportunity to purchase the photo which, of course, I did, thus beginning my genealogy research in earnest in the late 1990s.

RootsWeb also includes a section for “Message Boards.” Here, you can search your surname of interest, read other posts, and post your own query for information which I have also done. Folks on these message boards have been very helpful. This has also been a resource to meet extended relatives in various lines, which I have also done. We have then shared our own researched and documented data with each other. Several friendships were made this way, and they continue to be counted among my close friends today.

Other sections have even more options available including various surname websites, other tools and resources such as blank forms and charts, and hosted volunteer projects. The latter includes books owned by folks who are willing to research them for information you might need from a particular book. You may also find volunteers who are able to do local lookups at either cemeteries or historical societies for you. When volunteers have helped by doing research footwork for me, I felt it appropriate to pay their expenses, a much-appreciated gift.

You can also submit your FamilyTreeMaker data to RootsWeb. Instead, of doing that, I submitted a McNeill descendancy outline with names and dates of birth to the Schoharie County Genweb site. It is also common courtesy not to submit names of any living relatives, or those born within the past 75-100 years out of respect for privacy.

Another free online source of cross-referenced data is the comprehensive CyndisList.  The Categories section provides a list of resources, including American state and government as well as international resources. There is an Adoption section to help find orphans and living people, message boards, and volunteers to assist your search. A section entitled Free Stuff includes charts and forms, translation tools, online databases to search, volunteer lookups, surname family associations and newsletters, etc.

Sections you might not have thought about include 1) Migration Routes, Roads and Trails, 2) Canals, Rivers and Waterways, and 3) Immigration and Naturalization. There are sections entitled Heraldry, Hit a Brick Wall?, and Ships & Passenger Lists. The Mailing Lists are great for asking questions when you’re stumped, and for connecting with researchers working on the same lines. There are also sites to purchase items, and free trials to search various genealogy websites before paying their site subscription fee. has some free data, like the 1880 Federal Census records, but the best records are obtained using subscription-based entrance. Here, you will find tabs for Home, Trees, Search, DNA, Help, and Extras. It is absolutely an invaluable resource.

Perhaps your ancestors came through Ellis Island. Search The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to find your ancestors and the ship on which they sailed. A ship’s manifest lists the passengers, their age, name of the ship, port, date of departure, occupation, nearest relative in their country of origin, and their sponsor in the U.S.  I found information for my husband’s paternal grandfather’s family when they emigrated from Holland in the early 1920s. Some went first to North Dakota before settling in northern New Jersey as dairy farmers while others settled right away in northern New Jersey and Massachusetts to work in the textile mills.

I also found records at the Ellis Island website for my father’s families which emigrated from the Netherlands. Like many families, both of my father’s grandfathers came through Ellis Island, each with their oldest son – my dad’s paternal grandfather in November 1922, and his maternal grandfather in September 1923. They settled in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan among other Dutch. When they earned enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Uithuizermeeden, Groningen at age 15 in July 1923 with his mother and siblings through Ellis Island.

However, my dad’s maternal grandfather was determined his wife and children would not go through the rigors of steerage and Ellis Island. Instead, he sent money back home to them in Rotterdam for second-class tickets. Decades ago, my grandmother told me only a little about their sailing on the S. S. Rotterdam to Hoboken, New Jersey. Research showed the ship came into a New York City port in January 1926, with the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother’s family. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask more questions. She told me that a Dutchman, who made a living helping immigrants, met my great-grandmother and her children (my grandmother was age 15), and took them to his home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He fed them, put them up overnight, and the next morning put them on the right train to Michigan with lunches in hand. There, my great-grandmother was reunited with her husband, and my grandmother and her siblings with their father and oldest brother. How exciting that must have been!

My grandparents married in 1931 and lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan. With the Great Depression, my grandfather and his father lost everything as building contractors. They removed to another Dutch enclave in Clifton, New Jersey where my grandfather became a door-to-door salesman before again becoming a successful general contractor, with many a beautiful house or remodeling project to his credit.

You can purchase quality photo documentation of the ships your ancestors sailed on. However, I simply printed the free online photo of the ships on which my ancestors sailed, along with each respective ship’s manifest for documentation. I used both and the Ellis Island websites to obtain records.

For steerage immigrants, the Ellis Island experience included passing a medical and legal inspection. If your papers were in order, and you were in reasonably good health, the inspection process typically lasted 3-5 hours. The ship’s manifest log was used by inspectors to cross-examine each immigrant during the primary inspection. Though Ellis Island has been called the “Island of Tears,” the vast majority of immigrants were treated respectfully and allowed to enter America to begin their new life. However, about two percent of immigrants were denied entry. Typically, if you were suspected of having a contagious illness, or if the inspector thought you might become a public burden, entrance to the U.S. was denied. I can only imagine the pain it must have caused when one or more family members were told they had to go back to their native country.

I am very appreciative of the efforts my many ancestors made to emigrate from their home country, to which none ever returned, of becoming American citizens, and of their hard work to provide a better way of life for their family. By sharing bits of my ancestral heritage, of who they were and whence they came, I hope it has encouraged you to search for your ancestors, to find their place in the building of our great America, and thus to know the gift of your family heritage.

COMING NEXT: Genealogy Website Resource List.


Your Family Tree #10 – Last Will and Testament


We previously briefly touched on the importance of your ancestor’s Last Will and Testament, an excellent source of family documentation.  Wills are filed at surrogate court or county clerk’s office along with estate records for those who died intestate (without a will), inventories of estates, letters of administration, and guardianships, etc.

Some older wills may be found online at Sampubco Genealogy as posted by W. David Samuelson from whom you may purchase documents.  This site includes wills, guardianships, surrogate’s records/probate files, naturalizations, letters of administration, and cemetery listings.  Records are available for several states via alphabetical name search by county.  From my experience, mostly older wills are available, but not all of them.  I can, however, recommend this site as I purchased several ancestral wills more reasonably than from surrogate’s court or county clerk’s office.  However, it is still advisable to go to the appropriate office to search for and copy complete records, which I also did.

One drawback can be old style writing and language.  Having begun my secretarial career in an Owego law firm, researching and copying old deeds and wills in shorthand, I was familiar with most of the standard language.  After transcribing eighteenth and nineteenth century ancestral wills I’d purchased, I submitted several online to respective county genweb sites.  They provide an opportunity for future researchers to use this gift, a way to pay back the gifts others have freely placed online to aid in research.  It’s all about helping each other on the journey.

As for the old language of bequeathing one’s estate, I share excerpts in original format from the wills of a few of my ancestors – original spelling or misspelling retained.

Henrich/Henry Kniskern, signed 1780, probated 1784:  “In the Name of  God Amen. I, Henrich Knieskern at Shoharry [Schoharie] in the County of Albany [before Albany became several counties] farmer being at present weak in Body but of Sound Mind and Memory… considering that it is appointed for us all once to Die do this Eight Day of May in the Year of Our Lord Christ One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty make and Publish this my Last will and Testament in manner and form following that is to Say I recommend my Soul unto God that gave & my body unto the Earth from whence it came to be decently Interred… I give and bequeath unto my eldest Son… five Pounds Lawful money of New York (I Mean and Understand good hard Silver Money) for his birth Right… it is my will and Ordre that my Wife… shall have her supporting and Maintainment yearly and Every Year for her Life Time of my Estate in Knieskerns Dorph… [Kniskernsdorf is a now-extinct hamlet established on the Schoharie Creek by my ancestor, Johann Peter Kniskern, the Listmaster of one of the original 1710 Palatine settlements on the Hudson River.]  …I Give unto my Two Sons… together Equally my farming utenciels and Tools as both or Two Waggons & Two Sleeds Ploughs and Harrows with all the Tackling and furniture thereof… axes hoes & other Implements of husbandry… I Give to my Two Daughters, as bed Goods, Pewter Goods, Iron pots, Cooper goods & other goods… I give to my Two Sons… Equally my Loom and all & Every articles that belongs to Weavers…”

Adam Dingman, a prosperous freeholder of Kinderhook and Albany, wrote “…know all men that in the year seventeen hundred and twenty and twenty-one, the twenty-first day of January, in the seventh year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King George, I, Adam Dingeman, born at Haerlem, Holland, sick and weak of body, but having the perfect use of my senses…”  Unfortunately, he did not name his children from whom I have proven descendancy.

George Hutton, son of Lt. Timothy Hutton, listed all children, with daughters by their married names, a very helpful will.  An interesting inventory with values was attached to his wife Elizabeth’s will from 1845.  Numerous items were listed, including “1 feather bed $7.25, 1 blue and white spread $4.00, 1 straw bed tick $.25, 1 brown calico dress $.37, 1 black cashmere shall $.75, 1 pr morocco shoes $.50, 1 rocking chair $1.00.”

Other wills bequeath hereditaments (one of my favorite words), i.e. land, crops, tools, animals.  A McNeill family will “allows” an unmarried sister to use half of the house for life.  And an inventory made in 1758 for the estate of John McNeill, an apparently wealthy mariner (father of John C. McNeill), includes “1 Jacket of Cut Vellvet & 1 pair of Black Vallvet Britches, 1 paire of Lether Buckskin Britches, 1 Great Coat of Davinshire Carsey, 1 fine linnin Sheet x3 coarse ones, 1 45 weight of fetther, 1 paire of carved Shew buckells & knee buckells of silver, 1 paire Sleve buttons of gold, 2 Small Bibells w/one Silver clasped, 1 book called fishers Arithmitick, 1 seet of Harrow teeth, 1 Seet of plow Irons.”

Old documents do make fascinating reads!

COMING NEXT:  Genealogy Websites

Your Family Tree #9 – Military Records

Anything but a boring read, military records are another invaluable source of documentation.  The first step is to determine when and where your ancestor served.  Often clues to an ancestor’s military service are found in family stories, old photos, death records and obituaries, grave markers and/or cemetery records, local town histories, and other family records or correspondence.

Many military records are available at .  You will find draft registration cards for WW I and WW II, enlistment and service records, soldier and prisoner lists, casualty lists, pension records, etc.  In searching Ancestry’s records for this article, I found the Revolutionary War pension application file for my ancestor, John C. McNeill.  I had purchased the complete file several years ago through the national archives at  So much more data has been placed online at repositories like than was available when I began researching in the late 1990s.

Search for records at the website for National Archives.   Click on the Veterans’ Service Records section to begin.  You will find military service records, pension records of veterans’ claims, draft registration records, and bounty land warrant application files and records available.  I found the WWII enlistment records at both Ancestry and NARA websites for two of my paternal grandfather’s brothers.  They had served in Europe and the South Pacific.  NARA’s website allows you to download free forms in order to purchase the full military records which may not be available elsewhere.

Military records can provide a good deal of genealogical and historical data about an ancestor.  The various records may include date of birth, birthplace, age, date of enlistment, occupation, names of immediate family members, and service records listing battles fought, capture, discharge, death, etc.

However, bear in mind that military records may not include all data you seek.  My John C. McNeill did not note a date of birth or age in his Rev War pension application affidavit, and stated only that he had “nine children…5 sons and 4 daughters”, without listing any of their names.  Talk about frustration!  However, Jesse McNeill, my ancestor, verified in his signed affidavit that he was a son of John and that was key evidence.  Thankfully, John’s wife, Hannah, noted their marriage date, town, name of the Justice of the Peace who married them, and her sister’s name in her affidavit when applying for her widow’s pension.

With military records, you can take a little data and round it out with further research.  My John C. McNeill answered the call of fellow patriots to serve with the New Hampshire Line at Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill) in June 1775.  He was a Sergeant under Captain Daniel Wilkins in Colonel Timothy Bedel’s regiment of rangers, in charge of pasturing cattle to feed the men.  In 1776, Bedel’s regiment was ordered to join the Northern Continental Army in New York to reinforce the military presence in Canada.

McNeill’s pension file affidavits note capture at The Cedars, a fort west of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, where they were plundered of all possessions.  They were taken to an island and left naked, without shelter and scant rations for eight days.  At The Cedars, “Bedel left the fort, either [to]… seek reinforcements or convey intelligence.  The command devolved on Major Isaac Butterfield… who on the 19th of May [1776] disgracefully surrendered his force of about four hundred men to the British and Indians [who were] about five hundred in number.”  (History of Goffstown [N.H.] by George Plumer Hadley, page 124.)

Morris Commager’s “The Spirit of Seventy-Six” (pgs. 212-220) provides further corroboration of this capture with many injured, killed, taken prisoner, or dying of disease.  McNeill was among survivors exchanged and returned in a cartel between the British Captain George Foster and American Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.  McNeill then served out his military enlistment at Saratoga, NY.  McNeill’s cousin and friends sign an affidavit in his pension application file stating they survived the ordeal with him, celebrating their release annually thereafter.

Another excellent source, a great read which confirmed the information I had on Bedel’s New York Regiment, is found in “Benedict Arnold’s Navy:  The Ragtag Fleet that lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution” by James Nelson, 2006, The McGraw-Hill Companies.

I further assumed that, having served in New York for a time, McNeill later sought fertile land in what historians call the “Breadbasket of the American Revolution” – Schoharie County, New York.  After settling in my mother’s home town of Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York in the mid-1790s, one of his neighbors, and likely good friend, was Thomas Machin, whose farmland I have seen on a side road just into Montgomery County and very near Schoharie County.

Machin “supervised the making and laying of The Great Chain across the Hudson River near West Point.”  “W. Thomas Machin, Engineer, Washington’s Staff, Founding Father of Masonry in Schoharie County…Member Boston Tea Party; 1744-1816.”  (Personal view of two New York State plaques commemorating Machin at Carlisle Rural Cemetery, Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY, just a short distance up the road from where my mother grew up.)  However, Machin was not likely to have been part of the Boston Tea Party per my additional research.  Living in close proximity to each other, I am sure there must have been a good friendship between the two military men and their families – Machin’s grandson, James Daniel Machin, married John C. McNeill’s granddaughter, Lucy Jane/Jeanette McNeill, in 1852.

There is so much to be gleaned from in-depth research of ancestors, learning about their lives, extended family, and the historical era in which they lived!

COMING NEXT:  Last Will and Testament.

Your Family Tree #8 – Census Records

As we noted previously, studying census records plays another key role in searching for ancestors.  Census records track families as they grow, move to new frontiers, into the cities, or perhaps just stay put on the family farm with family members scattered within walking distance nearby.

Study the old handwriting, compare unknown names or words to letters and words which you clearly know.  But, know that the old fancy cursive is different from what we’re familiar with in today’s handwriting.  I became familiar with it when researching and copying old deeds as a young secretary years ago, learning the old language of legal documents in the process.

I use two methods for keeping census records – one is to write all data on 4×6 lined index cards, and the other is using blank 8×10 census forms.  I eventually acquired several hundred index cards filed alphabetically in a handy shoebox.  I find them easier to refer to than the large census forms which, admittedly, are the more accurate.  The large blank forms are also used as a guide to what data to include on index cards from each census.

Before searching census records, you should also know they, too, may contain errors.  At times, the enumerator may have been given wrong information, or misspelled first and last names depending on his own abilities.  When copying data, be sure to include the way names were misspelled, along with the known correction.

For example, I tracked a McNeill descendant whose father had removed his family from Carlisle to Decatur, New York and later to the state of Maine.  I knew his daughter, Appolonia Livingston McNeill, by baptism record.  She married William Smyth(e) and lived in Bangor, Maine.  By census records, her unmarried sister, Sarah McNeil(l), lived with them.  I followed the Smyth(e) family in Bangor by census, and the family’s billiard hall by city business directory.  I could not locate Appolonia in the important 1900 census, assuming she died after 1880.  Searching for her sons, I was surprised to find Appolonia as a widow, listed on the 1900 census by her middle name as Livingston A. Smyth.  She then resides with her twin sons in Portland, Oregon where she dies and is buried per death record I purchased.  Wondering what brought them to the far side of the continent, I can only speculate that perhaps they later enjoyed Portland’s 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition.  I have not had time nor funds to pursue further research on the family among Maine or Oregon records, though I did obtain a few free cemetery records online.

Every ten years since 1790, our federal government has gathered a national census.  Very few records remain of the 1890 census as most were destroyed by fire and water damage in 1921.  In 1934, rather than make attempts to restore the balance of records, they were destroyed by the U. S. Department of Commerce despite a public outcry.   The 1890 census was different from previous with in-depth questions about each family member and Civil War service, and would have been invaluable to researchers!

State censuses are equally as important.  Taken randomly, they are a little-known or seldom-used resource.  Typically collected by states every ten years, in years ending in “5,” New York did so in 1790, 1825 through 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

For privacy reasons, census records are not available to the public until 70 or so years later, the 1940 census being released in April 2012.  Records available to the public from 1790 through 1940 are found at a county clerk’s office, online by subscription at on microfilm through the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with some census records transcribed and placed online at county genweb sites.  As a way to pay back other generous contributors, I transcribed the 1810 census for Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York.  I’ve wanted to do more, but have not had time to go back and transcribe additional census records for online usage. And that was back when I had the slow dial-up internet, not my fast click’n-go high speed!

Initial census records provide limited data.  The 1790 census includes city, county, state, page, date, name of head of household, males under and over age 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.

The 1800 census begins to break down age groups by years, with 1820 including occupations in agriculture, commerce, manufacturing.  The 1830 census includes the deaf and blind, but no occupations.  The 1840 again includes age groups for males, females, free colored persons and slaves, but also occupations of mining, agriculture, commerce, navigation of ocean, canals, lakes and rivers, learned professional engineers; pensioners for Revolutionary or military services; the deaf, dumb, blind and insane; data regarding one’s education, and those who cannot read or write.

The 1850 census is also a key census as it’s the first to list the name and age of every household member along with numbering the dwellings/houses and families of a town.  From 1850 through 1940, data may include the name of each household member, age, sex (which helps when a given name is not gender specific or is illegible), number of children born to a mother, marital status, years of marriage, state or country of birth, birth places, year of immigration, street address, occupations, value of the home, etc.

The 1880 census is free at both and the LDS Family Search website.   The census for 1900 gives month and year of birth along with other family and professional data with the 1910 through 1940 being more in depth than previous years.  Regardless, all census records contain a wealth of vital information on your ancestors, and are well worth checking out!

COMING NEXT – Military Records

Holiday Music in Colonial America

If there’s anything that exemplifies the Christmas season, it’s the music. The familiar faith-based carols and popular melodies embody the meaning of a beloved holiday as well as add to our joyous spirits. But Christmas music back in the early days of America wasn’t what we think of today. Obviously, there were no radios for listening to popular tunes, and there were no records, cassettes, CDs or MP3s to buy.

And, if anyone was dreaming of a white Christmas, it certainly wasn’t with a popular tune! It was simply the beauty of a night made more silent by the pristine-white ground cover, and the time it took to harness the horse and ready the sleigh for a trip thru the woods and over the river to Grandma’s welcoming arms.

It’s hard to believe now, but centuries ago the singing of Christmas carols was officially banned from the medieval church! Undeterred, hearty souls who loved to sing songs of their faith went door to door, singing to their friends. That is, until Oliver Cromwell put a ban on this activity in 17th century England. Even the early American Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, and William Bradford ordered those slackers back to work who dared to celebrate – after all, Christmas was not a holiday… yet, anyway! It wasn’t until 1870 that we Americans officially recognized Christmas as a “Federal” holiday. Prior to that, festivities began to be popular about 1840; previously, celebrations were considered “unchristian.”

In all fairness to the Puritans, they believed every day was to be lived for God.  Their common adage held that “they for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”  This belief was based on not finding Scriptural support for any holy day other than the Sabbath, though they definitely found other reasons to enjoy hearty celebrations.

Biblically, early Christians were encouraged to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…” (Ephesians 5:19 NIV) So, it’s really no wonder songs of joy have been in the hearts of those who celebrated Christmas over the centuries, including our ancestors.

In the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the oldest Christmas song was written by St. Hilary of Poitiers in the early 4th century. The Latin “Jesus refulsit omnium” or “Jesus illuminates all” is believed to have been written by St. Hilary in 336 AD for the first Christmas celebration. Aurelius Prudentius, a Christian poet also of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote “Corde natus ex Parentis” (i.e. Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), a 4th century hymn, not a Christmas carol per se`.

A few years later in 354 AD, the Roman Catholic Church drew up a list of bishops, with a note for 336 AD: “25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.” (i.e. December 25, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.) Thus, December 25, 336 is believed to be the “first recorded celebration of Christmas” (i.e. Christ’s mass) even though no one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth.

In the early 13th century, Italy’s St. Francis of Assisi used live “Nativity Plays” with singing of carols to revive a Christmas spirit among his parishioners. As Christianity spread, the Roman Catholic Church began singing “Angel’s Hymns” at the Christmas mass, and other churches followed the example across Europe. Over time, new carols were written with Scripture-based themes, and traveling minstrels shared the music on their travels.

Though once banned, the old carols regained popularity as common folk sang privately or in special bands for Christmas Eve services. Eventually, Christmas carols were welcomed in the church worship service, and continue to thrive today not only in our many church hymn books, but have also been made popular via modern media. Most carols we sing today are only a few centuries old, written in the 18th and 19th centuries, while many newer carols and popular songs were written in the latter 19th through the 20th centuries, with even newer and more contemporary Christmas music written in the mid-20th century through this current 21st century.

With carols being songs expressing our joy, and knowing their origins, they are especially meaningful to us as we sing our favorites during the Advent and joyous Christmas season. Only one verse is shared of each song except the last two; you will easily find the balance in your hymnbook or in an online search.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – a long-time favorite, it’s a song of the medieval era, perhaps written in the 9th century by a monk or nun. John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest of the early 19th century in the Madeira Islands near Africa, translated this Latin poem from an ancient book of poetry and hymns he had discovered. Neale is believed to have used musical accompaniment from a 15th century funeral hymn of French Franciscan nuns, as per a manuscript at the National Library of Paris. The tune we still sing today is based on the ancient “plainsong” rhythmic style. There are eight or nine original verses, but the typical church hymnal uses five.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – though the composer of both this carol and the tune are unknown, it has been sung in churches as far back as the 16th century. First published in 1827 or 1833 (source difference), it was traditionally sung in the streets of London by watchmen and among revelers in taverns. In fact, Charles Dickens referenced it in “A Christmas Carol.” When Ebenezer Scrooge heard this song being joyfully sung in the street, something he could not abide, he threatened to hit the singer with a ruler! It has been popularized by numerous 20th century recordings. Originally, there were eight verses.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Joy to the World – this favorite carol by Isaac Watts was published in 1719 in his book, “The Psalms of David.” Based on his paraphrase of Psalm 98, it does not reference the traditional Christmas story found in Luke 2. Though not being written for Christmas per se`, it celebrates Christ’s coming again as all earth rejoices – completing the reason for His humble birth in Bethlehem. There are four verses to this very joyful and beloved carol.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – one of over 6000 hymns written by Britain’s prolific hymnist, Charles Wesley, this carol was penned in 1739 as a poem of ten verses. An original line, “Glory to the newborn King” was later changed by Wesley’s student, George Whitfield, to “Glory to the King of kings.” That change led to a rift between the two men with Whitfield eliminating some of the verses, yet this carol is considered one of the richest theological assets to the church hymnal. Its melody was written by Felix Mendelssohn, a familiar name as musician and composer.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

Angels We Have Heard on High – this popular nativity carol originated in 18th century France among the people who truly love to sing their “Chants de Noel” or Christmas carols. The title is taken directly from Scripture, Luke 2:14, using Latin for the chorus: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (i.e. Glory to God in the highest). The carol entirely references Luke 2:6-20, and was first published in North America for the Diocese of Quebec in the “Nouveau recueil de cantiques” (i.e. New Hymnal) of 1819. It was first published in the Methodist hymnal in 1935. There were four original verses.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Refrain: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! or Silent Night, Holy Night! – the simple yet elegant words to this beloved carol were written as a poem in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, Catholic priest at Mariapfarr. Two years later, Mohr had become priest for St. Nicholas’ Church at Oberndorf in the beautiful Austrian Alps. When the organ broke just before Christmas, Mohr took his poem to the organist, Franz Gruber, asking him to write an easy tune for singing with guitar. Gruber then composed the organ accompaniment several years later. But, if it were not for the organ repairman taking a copy of the song with him and sharing it with others, one of our favorite carols might have remained a seldom heard Austrian folksong. In 1859 or 1863, Mohr’s original poem of six verses was translated from German into the familiar English version by an Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young – verses 1, 6, 2 being what we sing today. Read more history at Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.

This carol was sung during a WW I truce between American and German troops. Men climbed out of battlefield trenches to celebrate their beloved holiday together, while the war carried on as usual the next day. The Austrian von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) included this carol in their singing tours, helping to popularize it in the U.S. after they had escaped the Nazi regime during WW II.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Cantique de Noel, or O Holy Night – my absolute favorite, this poem was written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, priest in a small French town, for mass that Christmas Eve. His friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, was asked by Cappeau to write the musical score. Unfortunately, learning that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams was a Jew, the church leaders banned the song, proclaiming it was not appropriate for worship services. Fortunately for us, the parishioners loved the song so much they sang it anyway! John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist, was deeply moved by the phrase, “chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” and published the song in his American magazine during the Civil War.

Across the sea, O Holy Night was sung by a French soldier on Christmas Eve in 1871 during war between France and Germany. Climbing out of the trenches and walking onto the battlefield alone, the brave young man began singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the first line in French. Then, a German soldier climbed out of his foxhole to sing another carol, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will.” “From heaven to earth I come” is a carol written in 1534 by the reformationist, Martin Luther. Feeling the bon homme of Christmas, fighting ceased for 24 hours, with the French church subsequently welcoming this beautiful and popular carol in their worship services.

O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

What Child is This? – this poem was written by William C. Dix in 1865 (1837-1898), an Anglican layman born in England, who lived and worked in Glasgow, Scotland. It is believed the hymn was written to fit the tune of Greensleeves, a traditional English melody which dates to the 16th century. Shakespeare actually referred to this particular tune in his play, “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Though Dix references the traditional Nativity scene of Luke 2:8-16, the original poem entitled, “The Manger Throne,” also refers to Christ’s later suffering on the cross.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
(The following section of this first verse is used as chorus for each subsequent stanza):
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – In 1861, tragedy struck America’s beloved poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” In July, the flame from a candle ignited his wife’s dress. She ran to her husband’s study where he tried to put out the flames with a small rug and then by wrapping his arms around her. She died the next morning, but his face was so injured he could not attend her funeral. After their eldest son went off to war, Lt. Charles Longfellow was nearly paralyzed by a bullet passing between his shoulder blades in November 1863. Traveling to Charley’s side, a still grieving widowed father sat down Christmas Day 1863 and wrote this poem from personal anguish, yet with a heart of hope as the church bells rang out… for God is not dead! Peace on earth, good will to men.

Longfellow’s original poem:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet, The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along, The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound, The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong, And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Away in the manger – traditionally thought to have been written by Martin Luther in the 16th century, it first appeared in a Lutheran Church hymn book in 1885. It is now believed the song was not written by Luther, but was a song published anonymously in the Lutheran children’s songbook and given the title of Luther’s Cradle Song. The third verse was written by Dr. John T. McFarland, a Sunday School superintendent.

Long considered a child’s hymn, and perhaps the best well known, it captures our hearts with its simplicity. Christmas is not about the gold, glitter and gifts. It’s the story about God humbly coming to earth as a newborn baby for our redemption. His earthly parents found no room of comfort in the inn for the birth of their first child. Instead, baby Jesus was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle, donkeys, and likely cats, mice and other animals, and was laid to rest upon a humble bed of hay in a manger, a feed trough. (Luke 2:1-7)

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

May each of you and your families be blessed with a most wonderful Merry Christmas!

Your Family Tree #7 – Cemetery Records

Cemetery records are another invaluable resource for your ancestry research.  Historical societies also retain cemetery records, or transcriptions, of virtually all old gravestones for every cemetery, large or small, within any given county.  Unfortunately, I have typically found this work to have been done several decades ago (often from early to mid 20th century), and desperately in need of updating.  However, with our modern technology, a great resource not available when I first began my research journey in the late 1990s is the Find-A-Grave website.

Cemetery associations maintain each cemetery, retaining records for all burials.  They can often provide more information from their records on the deceased than that which is on a headstone, including full dates of birth and death, and family relationships with parents’ names and/or name of the spouse.  On the other hand, I’ve also seen where my trip to a specific cemetery gave me more data on a gravestone than was written in the historical society’s record.

It is also well worth making a trip to the actual cemetery whenever possible.  On one trip, I walked up and down virtually every row of a very old, but still used, cemetery north of Cobleskill.  Frustrated at not finding specific ancestors, I decided to give it one more try and got out of the car, facing a short steep slope.  Climbing to the top of the little knoll, I walked directly into an unusual circular plot.  Peering closely at the stones, I had that “aha” moment – I’d found exactly what I was looking for!  For there were my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents!  As a teen, my Mom would drive her mother to this spot to place flowers on family graves, but she was unable to recall exactly where to find the plot.

While researching, it is helpful to know that a.e. (i.e. anno aetatis suae) on a gravestone is Latin for in the__  year of life versus age meaning year of age.  For example, you may see a stone with a date of death and age as follows:  Jan 10, 1834, a.e. 16y.  This indicates the deceased was in the 16th year of life; but, in reality, was 15 years old on the previous birthday before death.  You may also see the deceased’s date of death with age as follows:  d. June 15, 1827, 10y 3m 5d.  From this date, you can count backwards to the date of birth, i.e. b. March 10, 1817.  Take photos of gravestones for documentation, along with proof of the location of the stone(s) and exact cemetery of burial.

In the case of very old stones from the 1700s and 1800s, I have done rubbings – either with washable chalk to make the eroding chiseled letters stand out, or by pencil rubbing on paper lain atop the sunken lettering when nothing else was available.  The latter gave me data on my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, that was not in the cemetery records.  I knew he was a sergeant in the New Hampshire Line, serving at Bunker Hill as per his pension file; but, a separate gravestone revealed these barely discernable words etched in stone by doing a pencil rubbing on paper:  “Corp.1, Co.1, N.Y. Regt. Rev War.”  Questioning what he was doing in a New York regiment, I spent the money to purchase his full  Revolutionary War pension application file.

I then read historical books about the Revolutionary War for their collateral documentation of the era.  Reading “The Spirit of Seventy-Six,” author Morris Commager confirmed that the New Hampshire unit was asked to join the above-noted New York regiment on a mission to Canada.  Records researched by Commager detailed how the men were captured, stripped of all clothes and possessions, and imprisoned on an island in the St. Lawrence with many soldiers dying.  The remaining soldiers were bought back in a cartel by Benedict Arnold and released to serve out their enlistment, confirmed by other reputable sources, including “Benedict Arnold’s Navy” by James L. Nelson – a really great read!  This all substantiated affidavits in John C.’s pension file and the story in a New Hampshire county historical book about the capture and release as celebrated annually by John C.’s friends and relatives who remained in Londonderry, NH after the Revolutionary War when he removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY.

Although rare, cemetery records and gravestones do occasionally contain conflicting dates or errors.  A death certificate, if available, would be the more accurate record, along with collateral records.

I have personally seen few errors in gravestone data, but one stands out as part of my documented and published research thesis.  My ancestor, Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1746) had a nephew Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1764), both serving in military units in New York.  A monument to my Lt. Timothy Hutton at Carlisle Rural Cemetery in Carlisle, Schoharie Co., NY credits his service under Capt. Gross of Willett’s Regiment in the Revolutionary War.

On checking roster records, two Lt. Timothy Huttons are listed in Col. Marinus Willett’s Regiment at the same time – one in Capt. Gross’s company, the other in Capt. Livingston’s.  Purchasing military records of my ancestor, with my editor supplying a copy of affidavits for the younger Hutton, provides our proof.  This documentation notes both Lt. Timothy Huttons served in Willett’s NY Regiment.  But, Lt. Hutton b. 1764 stated in affidavits he served under Capt. Gross, with other documentation noting he died in New Jersey, while his uncle, my ancestor, Lt. Hutton b. 1746, though not stating which captain he served under, is thus presumed to have served under Capt. Livingston as per the unit’s roster records.  My Timothy Hutton (b. 1764) was documented serving in Schoharie County, NY, settling and dying in Carlisle, my mother’s home town.  And so I proved my Lt. Timothy Hutton did not serve under Capt. Gross as per his cemetery monument, but rather his nephew of the same name did.  With both men sharing the same name, it’s no wonder the kind folks who put up his monument were confused!

There has also been a concerted effort over the last several years to put cemetery records online, a great aid in research, but you should still document and prove data accuracy.  As the years pass, more and more data is making its way online than was available before 2000 when I began my research.  Again, check out the Find-A-Grave website.  Through the kindness of many people, photos are taken of gravestones, and, along with data written on the monuments, are placed online.

Obviously, not every grave is to be found online, nor is all information and family data accurate as I recently discovered from someone’s erroneous tie to my paternal family which I personally knew to be absolutely false.  I emailed the contact person and did not receive a reply back; I don’t know if it was ever corrected online as I’ve not gone back.  But, admittedly, it is very rewarding to find a photo of just the grave you’ve been searching for!

COMING NEXT:  Census Records.

Your Family Tree #6 – Historical Societies

County historical and genealogical societies are another great repository of data to aid in your research.  Among their resources are town and county historical books which often include brief lineages of early settlers, donated private family records, old family Bibles or transcripts of family data, transcribed census records, church and cemetery records, microfilm of various records including old newspapers, donated copies of wills or abstracts of wills, maps, rare books, donated specialty items, published family genealogies, and unpublished family manuscripts which can often be as accurate as any published composition, and so much more.

But, please keep in mind that any family genealogy is only as good as the family’s recollections and the ability to provide solid documentation, so personal footwork is still necessary to clarify or prove data if source documentation cannot be provided.

If you know where an ancestor lived, contact the corresponding county historical society.  You might be amazed at what may have already been researched, or what the folks can help you with, and how well they can point you in the right direction.  There is a research and copy fee at a historical society, though it is always less expensive to do your own research on the premises.  When I researched in the early 2000s, an average fee of $25/hour was charged by most societies to have their staff do your research (may cost more now).  I personally traveled to several historical societies; but, since that was not always feasible, I also paid for some to do my research.

Visit the online website for the town and county historical societies where you wish to obtain data.  If you want them to research, write a brief letter of request, include their base fee as listed online, and a self-addressed stamped envelope along with a brief description of information you seek.  As they respond in the order requests are received, it may be a few weeks before you receive a reply noting your request for research has been placed.

By clarifying data on a family record form filed at both Tioga and Schoharie, NY county historical societies, I proved someone wrongly placed a daughter in my McNeill family.  I wrote the submitter for information, but never received a reply.  There were two McNeil(l) families in Schoharie County.  Ruth McNeil married Matthew Lamont, removing to Owego, Tioga County, New York by 1825.  Matthew and his son, Marcus Lamont(e), purchased Hiawatha Island east of Owego on June 23, 1830 and operated a ferry across the Susquehanna River.  Marcus Lamont(e)’s son, Cyrenus McNeil Lamont, purchased the island in 1872 and ran the famous Hiawatha Hotel until 1887.

I proved Ruth (McNeil) Lamont did not belong to my McNeill family as had been listed on the above family history form.  Instead, I believe she was more likely the daughter of John and Ruth (Reynolds) McNeil, and thus named for her mother.  John and Ruth McNeil were originally of Vermont as per that McNeil family history writeup which I purchased from Montgomery County Dept. of History & Archives.  Per her sons’ census records, Ruth was born about 1782 in New York, the same year as was my John C. McNeill’s proven daughter, Betsey, his oldest child. Betsey was actually adopted by her mother’s childless sister per New Hampshire records.

Historical societies often have microfilm of local newspapers for birth, marriage, obituary and death notices.  Newspapers are a great source of collateral family data found in ads, public notices, or community event columns, i.e. the old-fashioned “gossip” columns which note the hosts and attendees of fashionable events.

Other important historical society holdings include old church records which provide vital information for births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials.  Old baptism records often include not only the name of the infant and parents, but the sponsors/witnesses who were usually relatives or close friends.  Churches do not provide this data, but many older church records have been donated to historical societies.  Often, you will find that someone with an interest in preserving this information took the time and effort to transcribe original handwritten records into a neatly typed report.  The transcriber certifies his/her work to be true and accurate, retaining all original errors.  These records may be in manuscript form or in a published book.

Town and county clerks’ offices are also invaluable resources.  Check the respective website for who to contact and what records they retain.  Marriage, birth and death records are typically kept by the respective town clerk where the event took place.  County clerk websites provide information on who to contact for genealogical research purposes.  The county clerk’s office maintains original state and federal census records, public land records (deeds, mortgages, liens, and maps), tax records, and wills, etc.  Family documentation can be found in wills (sometimes found at surrogate’s court), estate records for those who died intestate (without a will), inventories of estates, letters of administration, guardianships, etc.

Always note the source to document your facts, i.e. book, author, publisher, date, page, for example:

  1. William E. Roscoe, History of Schoharie County, New York, 1713-1882. (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1882), p. 54.
  2. John C. McNeill, Revolutionary War Pension File 20246.
  3. Mortgage Book B, pgs. 69-70, Schoharie County Clerk’s Office, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY.
  4. U.S. 1790 Census, Weare, Hillsborough Co., NH, p. 5, handwritten p. 332, line #9, NARA roll M637_5 ( census record).

When appropriate, you may certainly state data was found on personal visit to a specific named cemetery (be sure to include the address), a personal conversation with someone specific, or in a box of letters found in Grandma’s attic.  But don’t forget to note date of visits and conversations, and full names, including maiden and married surnames.

By keeping solid research documentation, it will always be available to validate your findings as needed.  You will never regret the extra effort.

COMING NEXT:  Cemetery Records.