Ancestry Blog » Site The official blog of Ancestry Fri, 06 Mar 2015 16:00:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Leaving a Legacy – Cornelia Clark Fort Fri, 06 Mar 2015 15:41:45 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Cornelia Clark Fort’s Life

“I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country.” – Cornelia Fort

As the first American pilot to encounter the Japanese air fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cornelia Fort made history for women aviators across the globe.

Cornelia was born into an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee,and discovered her passion for flying in 1940. After earning her pilot’s license in under a year, she became an instructor, which led her to Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, Fort was on a flight lesson with a student when she avoided a near mid-air collision with a Japanese plane. The bomber was one of those who attacked Pearl Harbor.

Less than a year later, Fort joined what became known as the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) and was the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty.

We can easily trace Cornelia through Ancestry records from birth, her arrival in Hawaii to death,





Cornelia Fort was commemorated by Cornelia Fort Airpark near her family home in Nashville, Tennessee, until its closure in 2011.

Her Impact on History

“This is not a time when women should be patient.  We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and ever weapon possible.  WOMEN PILOTS, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”    - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942

In the early 1940s, it was extremely rare for women to be pilots, let alone serve in the U.S. military, but upon entering World War II, women began flying

BT-13, Commonly Flown by Cornelia Fort

BT-13, Commonly flown by female pilots in WWII

non-combat missions in the military to allow men to serve on the front lines.

This was pivotal in women’s aviation history and Cornelia was among the first of WASP to serve her country.

Author Amy Nathan captured the stories of Cornelia and other female pilots of WWII in her book, Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of WWII published by National Geographic. You can hear Amy read an account of Cornelia’s December 7th experience here.

These women dedicated their lives to aviation and proudly served their country but were never truly honored for their sacrifices until 2009, when President Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Women Airforce Service Pilots.

To learn more about other female aviators who served during WWII, you can watch Amy share the fascinating history of women of WASP by tuning in to NonFictitionMinute.

You can also learn about researching Ancestry’s WWII record collections here.

Find our other notable women here,  

Elizabeth Blackwell

Sojourner Truth

Ada Lovelace

Hedy Lamarr

Madam C.J. Walker


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Using the Swedish Household Clerical Exams Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:43:01 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> SwedishGuideAncestry just updated the collection of Sweden, Selected Indexed Household Clerical Surveys, 1880-1893, adding records from  Jönköping, Malmöhus, Östergötlands and Skaraborgs. (Records for Älvsborg, Kalmar, and Värmland and a few from Göteborg och Bohus, Kronoberg, and Östergötland have been available since December 2014.)

Household examination rolls make up the main church register in Sweden. In them, everyone in a parish, including children, is listed household by household. These records were created to document examinations held each year to determine people’s knowledge of the catechism, but the result was a census-like record that can be a huge help in terms of tracking your Swedish ancestors.

The household examination has details such as name, occupation, date of birth, birth parish, marriage, etc. The records also document when people moved to and from the farms or crofts. The entire family is listed together, which makes it easy to find a person’s children or parents. The examination forms typically cover a five-year period, which can provide interesting details about how a household may have changed over that time.

These records are particularly valuable because they allow you to track your ancestors from place to place in Sweden. If your ancestor immigrated to America, that date will also be noted in the records, although the specific destination is typically not listed. Use that date to locate your ancestor in the Gothenburg, Sweden, Passenger Lists, 1869–1951 or in U.S. passenger lists.

With this collection, it’s important to note that most persons in the original record were not listed with surnames. In order to assist in searching records, surnames have been inferred. During this time period, surnames could be inherited, patronymic, or taken from another source such as a farm name. The inferred surnames are to be used as a guide.

Because vital events are often recorded in these records, they can be used in conjunction with the births, marriages, and deaths in Sweden, Church Records, 1500-1941, to help fill out what you know about the family.

To help you translate these records, we’ve created a free download with translations of each field. Click here to download a copy.

Search the Sweden, Selected Indexed Household Clerical Surveys, 1880-1893.

Lycka till!

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Leaving a Legacy: Madam C.J. Walker Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:11:27 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove to Owen and Minerva (née Anderson) Breedlove, former slaves on a plantation owned by Robert W. Burney. Sarah was the first child of the couple born after the Civil War in 1867. In 1863, the Union Army had occupied the area during the siege of Vicksburg.  On this map you can see the proximity of the Burney plantation to the city of Vicksburg.


Members of the Breedlove family were among the 60 slaves living in 13 dwellings on the Burney plantation as shown on the 1860 slave schedules.


Once the war was over, the family worked in the area as sharecroppers, but in 1873 Minerva died, and by 1875 Owen was also dead, leaving Sarah an orphan at age 7.

She lived with her older sister Louvenia and her husband and they moved to Vicksburg. By age 14 Sarah was married to Moses McWilliams, and by age 17 she had her daughter, Lelia (who later changed her name to A’Lelia). Moses died in 1887, just two years after Lelia’s birth, leaving Sarah a widow by age 20 with a small child to care for. With her options limited in Vicksburg, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where several of her older brothers had moved and were working as barbers.

Despite the challenges life had thrown her, she was determined to make a better life for her daughter, and she began working as a laundress. It was arduous work, but she worked hard. She married John Davis in August of 1894, and they lived with or near her brothers at various times. An 1895 city directory for St. Louis shows the Davises living at 1535 Lucas av. and Sarah’s brother James Breedlove living in the rear of 1517 Lucas av.



Life with her husband John was difficult. He had a temper—and a girlfriend. Sarah began losing her hair around the time of her marriage. When it came to hair care for African American women, there weren’t a lot of options at the time and the products being used stripped the natural oils from their hair and caused breakage. On the other hand, if the hair was washed too infrequently, women were susceptible to scalp problems that caused hair loss.

In 1902, Sarah had earned enough money to send Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee, and with resolve she set her mind to better her lot. By 1903, she had parted ways with John Davis, and around that time she met Charles J. Walker, a newspaper ad salesman. She became an agent selling hair products for Annie Turnbo, another woman in the hair-care industry, and took pride in helping women who were struggling with hair loss to regain their hair.

In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, joining her sister-in-law and four nieces, and began selling hair products and giving hair and scalp treatments there. She began experimenting with ingredients, working on an exclusive formula that would help solve the chronic hair and scalp problems that many African American women faced. Charles soon joined her there, and they were married in 1906.

Charles’ business experience and Sarah’s ambition and hard-working nature seemed to naturally complement each other in the early years of their marriage. Later that year, she began advertising her own products, under the name Madam C. J. Walker.  She began to expand her empire beyond Denver to other Colorado cities, teaching new agents her methods of scalp treatment. Business was booming, and Lelia joined in the enterprise, working with clients, mixing the product, and filling mail orders.

The product line was expanded, and as Madam C. J. Walker, Sarah took to the road, traveling by railroad to reach new markets. With the mail-order business booming, the company needed to find a better location. A factory was established in Pittsburgh in 1908, and Sarah started a school there and began training a network of agents who would fan out selling her products and treatments.

Her business opened doors for many African American women whose options for employment at that time were limited. And her product worked. Testimonials poured in and the business continued to grow. In 1910 she transferred her headquarters to Indianapolis. By 1911 she had 950 sales agents and a new factory in Indianapolis.

The success of her business did not carry over into her marriage, and a few years later she divorced Charles. She focused on her work and as the business grew, so did her philanthropic efforts. She pledged $1,000 to the building of a YMCA in Indianapolis and was known to help out the poor in the area surrounding her factory. She was very active in anti-lynching campaigns, like those of the NAACP, and praised the services of African Americans serving in World War I, calling for equal treatment for those serving. She donated to numerous educational institutions, with the aim of improving education for African Americans.

She continued to travel and throw herself into her work, but it came at the cost of her health. She died in 1919 of hypertension at her home in New York, but the good she did continued even after her death. She left all of her real estate and one-third of the company proceeds to her daughter, who had by now changed her name to A’Lelia Walker, and most of the remaining two-thirds went to charities.

If you’d like to learn more about Madam C. J. Walker, her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles has written a biography called On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. It’s a fascinating look not only at her journey but also at the history of times in which she lived and came to thrive. There are also biographical sketches on her blog:



Find our other notable women here,  

Elizabeth Blackwell

Sojourner Truth

Ada Lovelace

Hedy Lamarr

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Rich Finds in Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874 Mon, 02 Mar 2015 13:14:30 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex- slaves with money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution where they could save that money. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated 150 years ago on 03 March 1865 to meet that need.

Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover a portion of their savings, many never got any of their money back.

The signature registers of the Freedman’s Bank were preserved and eventually wound up in the National Archives, and in 2005, indexed these records and made the index and images available to members.

For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners–a critical piece of information for tracing a slave before the Civil War.

The record of Mary McGill below is a rich example of what you might find in these records and paints a vivid picture of a family torn apart by slavery.

Mary McGill_Freedman Bank

While she doesn’t list a former master or mistress, the remarks section gives her parents’ and children’s names, as well as some family history.

Father Sharper Irving and mother Diana. Both died in Williamsburg Dist., S.C. Husband died in Savannah in Mch after Fort Pulaski was taken – children – Joseph died on Mr. Jordan’s place up in Geo about first year war. She had four children die before they were named. William, she has been told is in Albany, Ga. She got word through the teachers. Don’t know where her daughters are. She left them in S.C. Major Murray on Edisto Is bought Diana and her children, most 20 years ago. Martha Ann was living with Dr. Clemens who sold her to a Mr. Swinton who was living on an island near Chston [Charleston].

Her living children’s names are also given above the remarks, along with her daughters’ husbands’ names and it tells us that Mary formerly lived in Charleston “on the neck of Kings St.,” which is said to mean just above Calhoun St.

Her current residence at the “Mission House” and the mention of “Rev. Mr. Pettybone” is interesting as well. Rev. Ira Pettibone was a New England abolitionist who worked with the American Missionary Association (AMA) for a couple of years in Savannah, Georgia (as mentioned in his eulogy). The AMA set up schools for African Americans during and after the Civil War, so that could explain the reference to the teachers who sent her word of her son William’s whereabouts. It’s interesting to note that Ira Pettibone also set up an account with the Freedman’s Bank in November of 1867. The remarks give his occupation as “former Supt. of Education, agent of Am. Missionary Association.”

The reference to her husband’s death “in Mch after Fort Pulaski was taken” is worth noting as well. Fort Pulaski was taken by Union forces in April of 1862. When Union forces occupied the fort, Union Major General David Hunter ordered that “All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States in Fort Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia, are hereby confiscated and declared free, in conformity with law.” As word spread, enslaved African Americans made their way to the fort seeking freedom. The significance of that event to Mary may have been why she uses it as a point of reference to Joseph’s date of death.

While the losses that came with the failure of the bank were no doubt painful to account holders, the details that can be found in the records are immensely valuable to the descendants of account holders.

For more information on the Freedman’s Bank records, see the 1997 Prologue article on the National Archives website, by Reginald Washington.

Click here to search the records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust.

To mark this milestone anniversary, Operation HOPE and the National Archives are hosting an event on March 3rd in Washington D.C. which is open to the public but you must register in advance here. Those unable to attend can watch via livestream beginning Tuesday, March 3rd at 4PM ET by following this link.

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Restoring Slave Families Using USCT Pension Records Fri, 27 Feb 2015 14:30:32 +0000 Linda Barnickel Read more]]> Today, we are going to look at how pension records created after the Civil War can help identify and reconnect slave-era families and relationships in the South. This article will assume that you have already identified someone in your family who may have served in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and that you already have basic information, such as age or approximate birth year, state of residence or enlistment, and perhaps, regiment of service.

If you have already obtained the soldier’s military service record, you have a good foundation. But don’t stop there. Riches abound in pension files for former slaves, and can increase exponentially if your soldier died during the war and the pension was filed for by his wife or minor heirs.

Before requesting a pension file from the National Archives, be aware that there are two types of requests. Form 85-D is a request for the entire pension file (up to 100 pages) and presently costs $80. Form 85-B is a request for a “Pension Documents Packet,” which contains eight specific documents from the pension file; this costs $30. Whenever possible, especially in the case of former slaves, I encourage people to request the full file (Form 85-D). That being said, obtaining a complete pension file is rather expensive, and many of the documents will seem to be redundant or hold little information of value. You may choose to obtain the smaller and more economical Pension Documents Packet. Although the smaller packet undoubtedly holds significant information, you may be missing some real treasures by not requesting the full file.

Keep in mind that the government, true to form, loved paperwork, and indeed, looked at applicants with a critical eye before issuing any checks from the treasury. This desire for documentation resulted in voluminous paperwork, particularly for former slaves – and it can be to your advantage.

Why is this especially the case with former slaves? The nature of slavery meant these men and their families had precious little documentation to give to the pension examiners. They lacked formal records of their marriages or dissolution of their previous relationships. Many did not know their age or birthdates. Family had been scattered by war, slavery, or the desire to move away from the South. People often changed their names – or had their names changed involuntarily, and one person might have gone by three or four different names from the time he enlisted to the time he applied for a pension. For all these reasons, pension examiners often interviewed many witnesses in an attempt to be certain about the identity of the soldier in question. The affidavits from these individuals can provide outstanding information about dates, places, people, and relationships, but they are generally only included in the full pension file.

The types of information you can find in a full pension file, when it concerns a former slave-soldier or his family can include:

Previous names and name changes

Names of slaveholders

Names of other family members

Names of previous spouses, both in slavery and in freedom

Names of offspring (including step-children) and their parents

Formal and informal marriages in slavery and in freedom

Divorces or separations (voluntary or forced)

Previous residences, including names of plantations

Place of birth, often including city or county, and first slaveowner

Parents’ names, even if they died before the Civil War and/or were slaves

Siblings names

Family separations through migrations or slave sales

Dates of death of soldier/pensioner and his spouse

Even if you choose to obtain the smaller, less expensive Pension Document Packet, consisting of only eight documents, you can still obtain useful information.

Let’s look at the case of John Gordon, who served in Company B of the 49th U.S. Colored Infantry. We learn from his Pension Documents Packet that he was born in Burr County, North Carolina on October 8, 1847. He enlisted at “Melgin” [Milliken’s] Bend, Louisiana in 1863; and had been living in Washington County, Mississippi as a blacksmith prior to his enlistment. A formal government questionnaire specifically asks if he was a slave, and requests that he name all of the former slaveholders. Obtaining the names of the former slave owners can lead to many other resources. The questionnaire also asks for dates and places of residence since the war, opening up other avenues for research. A second questionnaire asks for his wife’s maiden name, the date and place of their marriage, and the names of all children, even those that were deceased. All of this is useful information that can be used as a springboard for additional research.

Sadly, when I obtained Gordon’s basic Pension Documents Packet, there was no indication whatsoever that this treasure also existed in his file:

John Gordon

John Gordon Pension Documents Packet, certificate #1551647, Company B, 49th U.S. Colored Infantry, Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Photographs are extremely rare to find in pension files, though in the case of former slaves, it might take a photograph to sufficiently prove a man’s identity. A witness might view an image of the veteran and confirm to the authorities that the man was indeed the same person who served in their company during the war, though he was going by a different name today than he had used at the time of his service.

Pension files for Civil War soldiers are always worth pursuing, but this is particularly the case for African-Americans who had been slaves. Even if you do not have a direct ancestor who was the proper age to have been a soldier, try to find someone else in the family who was. Siblings, in-laws, neighbors, and others may have testified on his behalf, and this in turn may be able to assist you in your own family’s search.


Two books rely heavily on pension files for USCT veterans and their families, and serve as excellent case studies:

Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi by Noralee Frankl (Indiana University Press, 1999)

Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau by Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer (NYU Press, 2008).

Family Tree Friday: How to Make Sense of a Civil War Pension File” by John, March 11, 2011, “NARAtions: The Blog of the United States National Archives,”  

Request a pension record from the National Archives (scroll to middle of page)

Civil War “Widows’ Pensions” on Fold3

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Leaving a Legacy: Ada Lovelace Wed, 25 Feb 2015 15:37:23 +0000 Anne Gillespie Mitchell Read more]]> You may have recently watched the Imitation Game and learned about Alan Turing’s efforts to defeat the Nazis with his ingenious computer work.  But do you know who is credited with creating the first computer program?  Would you have guessed an English Countess?

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born 1815 and died 1852 in England, is credited with creating the first computer program.

She was baptized December 20, 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of Lord George Gordon Byron and Anne Isabella (née Milbanke) Byron.


She married William Lord King, who subsequently became the Earl of Lovelace making Ada the Countess of Lovelace.



But Ada wasn’t content with just being a Countess and a mother of 3. Ada was well educated and continued her education and research after her marriage. She worked with Charles Babbage on his “analytical engine.” This eventually led to her translating notes of young engineer and future Italian Prime Minister Luigi Menabrea into English.  Her notes were incredibly extensive and part of those notes included an algorithm for computing Bernoulli Numbers on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, making it the original computer program.

She suffered from illness throughout much of her adult life and died at the age of 36 in 1852.


But she left a legacy as being the first person to write a computer program, and she did it as working mom!

Find our other notable women here,  

Elizabeth Blackwell

Sojourner Truth

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Finding Your Family History on the Printed Page Tue, 24 Feb 2015 14:00:41 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> Finding Your Family History on the Printed Page

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lisa Elzey, Family Historian at Ancestry

I am stuck finding more information about my grandfather, Leland Wright. From a 1930 U.S. Census I know he lived in Florida and was born in Ohio about 1883. Can you help me? – Edmund

It’s a safe bet that you should always start with the United States census when you’re beginning the search for an American ancestor. The federal census, which actually was first taken in our young Republic in 1790 and then every ten years after that, can give you the nuts and bolts you need to start a more extensive search: names, ages, places of residence, and the names of a person’s children, relatives, and even others living in their household. But in the case of your grandfather, another repository of records contains the information you need to discover much more about his life before 1930.  Leland’s birth date makes him a likely candidate to have been included in one of the most significant collections of information about Americans in the early 20th century.

When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare at the end of January 1917, it became increasingly clear that the United States would be joining the fight across the Atlantic. The United States had an army of less than 150,000 men at the time, nowhere near the force that would be needed to help win the Great War in Europe. To address the need for more soldiers, the government passed the Selective Service Act in 1917, which required all men between the ages of 21 to 30 to register for military service. The law was later amended in August 1918 to include all men between the ages of 18 and 45. By the end of World War I, more than half of the 4.8 million Americans who served in the armed forces had entered military service through the draft.

Huff Po Photo 1

Just like the scope of the census, draft registration was meant to be universal—in this case, all men in the United States (under certain ages at certain times during the War) were required to register, whether they were native born, naturalized, or an alien living in this country. And for those of us searching for ancestors a century later, that registration effort left behind a genealogical goldmine: 24.2 million draft cards—all digitized and all available online! There were three registrations over the course of the war, and the third captured information about the largest range of men (ages 18–45), including your grandfather, 32-year-old Leland Wright!

Our initial research through death, marriage, and other records revealed that Leland’s birthdate was actually 2 June 1886. We also found that he usually went by the name “Lee.” With his actual birthdate and alternate name, we were able to find his WWI draft registration card. And that’s when things got really interesting.

Looking over Lee’s registration card, we took note of the details recorded on the form. He was tall, of slender build, and had gray eyes and brown hair. He lists his nearest relative as Ella Bertha Wright, his new wife of less than three months. (This was Lee’s second marriage. His marriage to your grandmother in 1927 was his third.) But the most intriguing fact appears under the Date of Registration on the right-hand side. Under the date “Sept 12th 1918” is written “Co Jail.” Could Lee have been in jail when he registered for the draft? We turned to local newspapers to see if we could find anything that Lee might have done to warrant incarceration.

Long before Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all of the other sorts of instant status updates that come with modern technology, and the seemingly nonstop stream of celebrity gossip on internet websites, television or radio, newspapers were the way a person stayed in the know. And newspapers contain much more than the stories that made front page headlines—especially local newspapers, which, in their way, are also treasure troves of information about our ancestry.  Visits from an out-of-town relative, divorce decrees, neighborhood parties and local social events, political rallies, and—yes—arrest announcements are just a few of the interesting stories that found their way into our local daily and weekly hometown newspapers.

A search of the local newspapers in the region where Lee Wright lived turned up a fantastic article dated 4 September 1918, only eight days prior to Lee’s WWI draft registration. According to the article, Lee had originally been arrested for trying to sell alcohol.  While Lee was in jail for this alleged crime, the chief of police ordered the deputy sheriff to raid Lee’s home. During the raid, the authorities discovered a “still and a quantity of moonshine.” But wasn’t this two years before Prohibition began nationally in 1920, you may ask?

For many of us, the word “Prohibition” brings to mind romanticized images of the Roaring Twenties or the gangster era of Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and Dutch Schultz. Those images have been shaped by Hollywood’s numerous interpretations of the era, from the comic brilliance of the trio of Lemmon, Curtis, and Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959) to the gritty violence of The Untouchables (1987) with Robert DeNiro as the infamous Al Capone, and more recently, of course, with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

The reality is that alcohol prohibition was a hotly debated issue that traced its root back to the temperance movement of the 19th century. Proponents made a

Miami Herald, 4 Sep 1918

Miami Herald, 4 Sep 1918

case for public morals and health, while opponents believed it violated rights and freedom of choice. While the 18th Amendment mandating national prohibition didn’t go into effect until January 1920, many states adopted “temperance laws” long before. Florida, where your grandfather lived, was one of those early temperate states. Statewide prohibition didn’t begin until 1919, but before that, individual counties could decide whether they were “dry” or “wet.” Leland, apparently, and much to his great misfortune, lived in a dry one.

Not only does the newspaper article tell us why Lee was in the county jail when he filled out his draft card, it gives us a quote from Lee himself. He is said to have told authorities, “I knew the police didn’t have anything on me [in reference to his original arrest], but that discovery of the still is another thing altogether.”

Lee was unable to make bail, which is why he filled out the required WWI draft card sitting in the county jail.

We don’t know what ultimately happened when Lee got his day in court, but some research into county criminal records might shed more light onto his case. We do know that Lee carried on with his life and nine years later, in 1927, divorced Ella and married your grandmother, Leath Fisher. We are sure they toasted their marriage, one way or another!

Prohibition remained in place until 1933, so Lee lived to see that.  But he lasted only two years longer: he died of pneumonia at the age of 49 in 1935. When Lee passed away, his youngest child (your father) was only about nine months old, so he may not have heard the more colorful stories about his father’s colorful history. But with the help of military records and newspaper articles, we have been able to help you, his grandchild, catch a rare glimpse into your grandfather’s life during one of the most notorious and interesting times in American history.

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree?  Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his team of Ancestry experts your question at


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Leaving a Legacy: Sojourner Truth Mon, 23 Feb 2015 17:15:13 +0000 Crista Cowan Read more]]> When learning about the lives of extraordinary individuals – whether it’s famous women in history or someone from my own family tree – I’m always curious about their childhood.  What experiences did they have that formed them into the human being they became.  What things did they see, what choices did they make in their formative years that allowed them to make more courageous choices later?

Sojourner Truth, 1864. Image Source: Library of Congress

Sojourner Truth, 1864.

No life I have studied shows the connection between early life experience and later life choices more clearly than that of Sojourner Truth.

Born into slavery in 1797, Bell Baumfree lived in Esopus, New York with her parents and siblings until she was nine years old when she was sold at auction “with a flock of sheep” for $100 and removed to Kingston, New York.  Two years later, after daily beatings, she was sold for $105 to a tavern keeper in Port Ewen, New York.  Another two years passed before she was again sold and sent to live in West Park, New York where she endured regular “harassment” from her owner’s wife.

When she was 18 years old, Bell had a tragic love affair with a slave from a neighboring farm.  Her lover’s owner knew that if she got pregnant he would not own the offspring and so forbade their relationship.  When he caught them together, he beat the man so severely that he shortly died from his injuries.  Bell’s firstborn child was born several months following this incident.  The girl did not live long and it is not known whether she was the child of the slave owner or the lover.

Eventually, Bell was forced into marriage with a man named Thomas.  To that union she bore four children.  Her last child, Sophia, was born in 1826.  At that time, Bell’s owner promised her freedom.  Then he changed his mind.  Furious over the injustice, Bell escaped with her infant daughter, leaving her other children behind.  A Van Wagenen family took her in and offered her a job.

Almost a year later, following 30 years of abolitionist legislation and preparations by the state of New York, emancipation was declared on July 4th, 1827.  In inquiring about her other children, Bell learned that her five year old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a slave owner in Alabama.  (Legislation had been passed years earlier, in anticipation of emancipation, that no slaves could be sold out of state.)  Again, furious over the injustice, Bell took the slave owner to court and, after months of legal battles, won her son’s freedom.  In so doing, she became the first black woman to take a white man to court and win. Details on the case can be found in this biographical sketch published in the Inter Ocean of 1 December 1883.

There is much more to the story of Bell Baumfree.  In 1843, following spiritual guidance, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. We can find Sojourner in the 1880 Federal Census here,

1880 United States Federal Census for Sojourner Truth,

1880 United States Federal Census for Sojourner Truth,

She became an outspoken abolitionist, a defender of women’s rights, and a deeply religious pacifist.  She owned property.  She travelled.  She spoke before hundreds of audiences, often with thousands in attendance.  She wore out her life in service to the causes she held dear, informed by the experiences of her childhood.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are hosting a series entitled “Leaving a Legacy: Important Women in History,” which will feature notable women who influenced the world through their life’s work, immense courage or commitment to a cause. 

Find our other notable women here, 

Elizabeth Blackwell

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How Historical Fashions Influence Today’s Red Carpet Fri, 20 Feb 2015 16:25:02 +0000 Betty Shubert Read more]]> The beautiful gowns shown here were worn on the red carpets of the 2013 and 2014 Academy Awards shows. They are perfect examples of gowns that are truly timeless but with subtle historical influences. As a historical fashion expert and costume designer, I wanted share some of my favorite gowns that walked the red carpet in previous years.

Charlize Theron at the 2013 Academy Awards

Charlize Theron at the 2013 Academy Awards

Here is Charlize Theron at the 2013 Academy Awards, striking the perfect pose to show off her figure in a flattering, fantailed dress.

Lupita Nyong’o at the 2014 Academy Awards

Lupita Nyong’o at the 2014 Academy Awards

Lupita Nyong’o accepting an Oscar at the 2014 Awards. Her cool, ice-blue, pleated chiffon gown provides a striking compliment to her happy face.

Amanda Seyfried at 2013 Academy Awards

Amanda Seyfried at 2013 Academy Awards

Amanda Seyfried, also in a trained gown, wears yards of gorgeous (and expensive) embroidered lace. The modestly high neck is relieved by a provocatively deep slash.

These fabulous gowns all have in common, graceful trains that sweep the floor.  Since fashion always evolves to its most extreme before fading away, it is interesting to note that trains have not been seen much since they first became fashionable in 1878.

How They Evolved

excerpted from the book OUT-OF-STYLE, © 2013 Betty Kreisel Shubert

Excerpted from the book OUT-OF-STYLE, © 2013, Betty Kreisel Shubert

In the 1860s, bird-cage shaped hoops changed to be more triangular in shape. Excess fabric was swept to the back over a small, back waist pad that held the fabric up & out. The skirt became shorter in front, longer in back, forming a modest length train. By the 1870s, an inexpensive, replaceable straw edging, sold by the yard, was sewn onto the hem of the spreading train to keep it clean. This silhouette preceded and evolved into what we know today as the bustle.

In modern times, as actresses exit their luxurious limos onto the red carpet, the trains of their gowns, perhaps inspired by the vintage dresses of the 1870s have now elongated to gorgeous extremes. In this weekend’s Oscar ceremony, we can look forward to more beautiful dresses that have been inspired by the fashion mavericks and trendsetters of centuries past.

What have been some of your favorite red carpet fashions over the decades?

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Leaving a Legacy: Elizabeth Blackwell Fri, 20 Feb 2015 15:10:53 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> 20150220_Elizabeth_Blackwell

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we are launching a series entitled “Leaving a Legacy: Important Women in History,” which will feature notable women who influenced the world through their life’s work, immense courage or commitment to a cause. Over the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing the compelling stories of well-known (and some lesser-known) women in history.

When you do a little digging into Elizabeth Blackwell’s family tree, it’s not too surprising that she became the first woman to earn a degree from an American medical school. She comes from a pretty progressive family. Her father, an abolitionist, put the education of his daughters on par with that of his sons. Elizabeth’s brother Samuel married Antoinette Brown, the country’s first female ordained minister, and he himself was active in abolitionism and women’s rights. Another brother, Henry, was active in the same circles and married suffragist Lucy Stone.

Elizabeth’s sisters were no slouches either. While Elizabeth was the first to earn her medical degree, her sister Emily was not far behind and became the third woman in the U.S. to claim that honor. With Elizabeth, she worked to establish an infirmary for women and children in New York and trained women to become nurses during the Civil War. Their other siblings followed pursuits such as educator, lawyer, land agent, iron manufacturer, journalist, author, and artist.

The Blackwell patriarch died only six years after the family’s 1832 arrival in America, but the elder children, including Elizabeth, worked together to provide for the younger siblings. The enterprising family was praised in this 1849 newspaper biographical sketch, published after Elizabeth obtained her degree.

After a friend dying of uterine cancer encouraged her to take up medicine saying, “If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me,” Elizabeth Blackwell took up the gauntlet, studying with several doctors while applying for admission to medical schools. While most schools wouldn’t consider her admission, Geneva College in upstate New York put the question in the hands of the student body, who, thinking it a joke, overwhelmingly voted to admit her. She graduated at the top of her class and in 1849 received her M.D.

Following her graduation, Elizabeth traveled to Europe, where she studied in London and Paris. In the 1851 census of England, she was enumerated in London as a “doctor of medicine from the United States of N. America.”

20150220 NY Infirmary

By 1856, she was back in the United States and with Dr. Maria Zakrzewska and her sister Emily,  working to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

That same year, Elizabeth adopted an Irish orphan from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island, named Katherine “Kitty” Barry. Kitty never married and stayed with her mother until Elizabeth’s death in 1910.

In 1859, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to appear in the Medical Register in the UK. She continued to pave the way for new female doctors in the UK, helping to establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell died in 1910 after a fall in 1907 left her mentally and physically disabled. She is listed in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929. In her lifetime, she not only broke the barrier to becoming a doctor, she also opened the door wide for many more women to come.

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