Saturday, February 19, 2011

Are you related to Aaron Burr?

Unless you are a big history buff, Aaron Burr is one of those early American people you know your teacher told you about, but you can't really remember why. And that's because your teacher didn't have time to go into all the details that make Aaron Burr's story a juicy scandal, and you probably didn't wonder if you're related to him. So, like most of us you probably didn't pay all that much attention at the time. But it is a juicy story, and you actually might be related to him.

Third Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr had a distinguished Revolutionary War career which propelled his political success after the war. Some history enthusiasts will recall the 1804 pistol duel in which Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, another prominent figure in Revolutionary history. Ironically, Burr had saved Hamilton's life during the Revolutionary War. But the two did not see eye to eye on politics and during a bitter election campaign Hamilton impugned Burr's honor, and Burr demanded satisfaction. Duels were, by this time, technically illegal so when Hamilton died as a result of the duel, the Vice President found himself avoiding certain states for the remainder of his term in office and for several years thereafter.

Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel after a nasty election campaign during which Hamilton insulted Burr's honor.

It turned out that Hamilton's death was just the beginning of the Vice President's woes. Following the end of his term as Vice President in 1805, Burr went west into the frontier of the recent Louisiana Purchase. There he leased 40,000 acres in Spain's territory which, historians allege, he planned to use as a wedge to split the western frontier away from the newly formed United States. True or not, all he needed was a war, and the recently defeated British just might have been willing to sponsor it. Burr's alleged plans ultimately were undone when his former friend James Wilkinson tattled to President Jefferson. In the end, Burr was arrested and thrown in jail at Fort Stoddert, Alabama on this day, 19 February, 1807.

Burr, however, was never actually convicted of treason. He was taken from Fort Stoddert to Richmond where President Jefferson did everything in his power to have Burr convicted. But the checks and balances of the newly formed judicial system held, and insufficient evidence was found for a conviction. Burr spent several years laying low in Europe, avoiding scandal, before returning to New York where he assumed his mother's maiden name "Edwards." He died in 1836 and was buried in Princeton Cemetery, New Jersey.

Over 200 years later, Aaron Burr made news again when it was reported that Burr's descendants hoped to restore his good name. Burr's only legitimate child, Theodosia, had only one child who died young and left Burr with no legitimate heirs. However, The Aaron Burr Association believes that Burr had at least two illegitimate children: Louisa Charlotte born in 1788; and John Pierre Burr born 1792. As of 2005, The Arron Burr Association had not yet found any direct line male descendants from Aaron Burr to perform y-chromosome DNA tests which would prove at least the John Pierre Burr line to be true descendants. If you, or anyone you know, believe you are a descendant of Aaron Burr, please let us know.

Nasty elections and political scandal. Duels to the death. Illegitimate children and a trial for treason. Burr would have been tabloid fodder in our time. Now don't you wish your history teacher had told you all the details?

For further reading about Aaron Burr:

Friday, February 18, 2011

South Carolina blues

If you have antebellum ancestors from South Carolina, it's a sad day. A piece of your genealogy went up in flames on this day in 1865 when General William T. Sherman torched the State House in Columbia. The State House library was left in ashes, and the city was left in disbelief and debt as the Civil War drew to a close. Our ancestors' lives were changed forever.

South Carolina is notoriously difficult for family history research due to the lack of records, especially during the Colonial and antebellum eras. Due to the extent of record destruction, it is essential to understand the cultural, religious, and political history, migration patterns, topography, creeks, and rivers as well as federal, state, county/district/parish, town, plantation, and family records. So few tax lists survive that they can be counted on two hands. Birth and death records were not kept by the state until 1915. Many churches and county courthouses have also burned over the years, making family history research quite a challenge.

However, there is good news. Charleston was not destroyed by the Civil War. Before moving the state capitol inland to Columbia, Charleston had been the seat of the South Carolina state government. Many records, including land and court records which are essential for family history, remained housed in Charleston and survived Sherman's fires. Many county courthouses have survived both the Civil War and the ravages of time, and many local historical societies and libraries have preserved genealogical treasures just waiting to be uncovered.

One of the best places to start looking for South Carolina ancestors from the comfort of your own home is the South Carolina Archives. Many of their collections have been indexed and digitized and are available for free at their website. To use it: review the index to their digital collections so you know what record sets you are (and are not) searching. Then click "Enter on-line records index" at the bottom which will take you to the search form. A guide to the digital collections can be found here.

The South Carolina Digital Library is another fascinating resource. Although it is less likely that you will find documents or photos pertaining to your ancestors in the index to people here, it is well worth checking. Your ancestor may not be mentioned in the digital library, but the photos, maps, and historical documents preserved here will at least help you see what their lives were like. Search by topic, county, or timeline if you have a specific idea of when or where your ancestors lived, or just browse by media type to get a feel for the collection.

It took 40 years, but Columbia rose from the ashes of the Civil War and instituted the Historical Commission of the State of South Carolina, which is now responsible for the State Archives mentioned above. Although researching your Palmetto State ancestors may require patience and skill, it's worth it.

For further reading:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Adieu to the inventor of QWERTY

On this day in 1890, Christopher Latham Sholes died and was laid to rest in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee. "Who is he to me," you ask? He is the man you can thank for scrambling your keyboard out of alphabetical order. You probably unknowingly took his name in vain countless times in your typing classes. Although he did not invent the typewriter per se, he invented the first practical commercial application of it. (And the next time auto-correct "fixes" your text message for you, remember: there was a reason for that keyboard design)

"Seriously? Who invented this thing?"

Even after his death, Christopher continued to influence modern type. He died the year after his application for one last patent had been filed, and the executor of his estate, George B. Sholes (his son) finished the paperwork and declared to the Patent Office on Christopher's behalf:

"I, Christopher Latham Sholes, of Milwaukee, in the county of Milwaukee, and in the State of Wisconsin, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Type-Writing Machines; ... and it consists in certain peculiarities of construction and combination of parts... By the construction of above described I provide a type-writer of practical character wherein there is a positive adjustment and action of the type bars and consequent perfect alignment of the printed characters, while at the same time the result of the work is always in sight of the operator."1

Try lugging this thing back and forth to the genealogy library.

At the time, the QWERTY arrangement was helpful. The typewriter had a very annoying habit of jamming when the user typed too fast. Sholes's invention was intended to spread the most commonly used letters apart. The first model they had invented was designed like a piano keyboard, complete with alternating ebony and ivory keys in two rows. This arrangement didn't work so well, and as inventors do, Sholes came up with a more useful method which would prevent the weights at the bottom of the keys from jamming. It was brilliant, and made typing much less frustrating at the time.

You can search for other clever inventors hiding in your family tree. searches include entries from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Patents, database 1790-1909. But if you don't have an subscription, you can also search the United States Patent and Trademark Office for free using their databases, some of which include full text as well as images of the invention which were supplied with the patent application. Google also has a specific search just for patents which is a little easier to use.

What fun things did your family invent?

1. “USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database,” digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office ( : accessed 17 Feb 2011), George B. Sholes on behalf of Christopher Latham Sholes, Type-writing Machine, patent file no. 464,902 (1891); original file location not cited.

For further reading about Christopher Latham Sholes and the typewriter:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Digging up archaeologists & other family stories

Today marks the anniversary of the famous discovery of the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1923. In celebration, we took a peek into his family history. Howard's Wikipedia page tell us he was born in London 9 May 1874. The 1881 and 1891 census of England show Howard living in London with his parents Samuel and Martha. Samuel was an artist, and the 1891 census shows Howard's occupation as an art student. Not long after the 1891 census was taken, Howard left for Egypt and began the adventure of a lifetime.

Samuel Carter family, 1891 census of England
1891 Census of England, Brompton, Kensington, London, population schedule. District 21, Piece 33, Folio 104, Page 82, #10 Rich Terrace, Samuel J. Carter; digital image ( accessed 16 Feb 2011); citing The National Archives, London, England, Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; 2,131 rolls.

However, if we did not happen to know that Howard Carter was *the* Howard Carter of Egyptian fame, or if we didn't know he had a Wikipedia page, how would we have found him? He was not listed in the 1901 census. We could check all the usual places, including civil registration, military records, passenger lists, etc., but Carter is a common last name and London is a big city. We know now that he did not marry and had no children, but if we had no accounts of his life, we could have wasted hours upon hours searching for this mysterious uncle.

Although nothing can replace family letters, photos, and postcards, we have found that one of the best sources for "inside information" when looking for 19th and 20th century ancestors, and sometimes earlier ancestors as well, is FindAGrave. FindAGrave members who care about virtual cemetery maintenance often upload photos and stories and provide hyperlinks to information about other family members.

Newspaper articles, although frequently much more time intensive to search, are another rich source of biographical information. Sites such as GenealogyBank, Newspaper Archive, Proquest Historical Newspapers Collection, and other subscription websites are frequently available through your local library for free. In addition, many other sources are free such as Google News Archive. For United States research, we recommend consulting a list of historical newspapers online hosted by University of Pennsylvania Libraries. also has memorial pages which integrate with Facebook to celebrate the lives of our family and ancestors.

Howard Carter's example underscores the importance of looking not just for dates, places, and names, but for stories. It also illustrates the importance of working from modern events backwards in time rather than latching onto a historical event and working forwards. Working backwards in time, Howard's extended family and their descendants know a bit about his accomplishments, so we have additional clues which help guide the investigation. Without such clues, we would be left wondering what ever happened to Uncle Howard after the 1891 census. We'd probably waste tons of time and money ordering death records to see if he died, when all along he was just living in Egypt, off making breathtaking discoveries which were not recorded in the usual genealogical records.

So, please, take a moment to write down your family stories, not just the names and dates and places. Include the whole family, even the weird ones. Share them at FindAGrave or Footnote. Your great-great grand nieces and nephews will thank you.

To read more about Howard Carter:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remember the Maine (and its impact on genealogy)

On the evening of 15 February 1898, 266 American sailors met their deaths after the USS Maine exploded and sank in the Havana, Cuba harbor. Only 89 members of the crew survived. Although we believe now that the loss was an accident, a the time it was perceived as an act of war, and sparks flew between the United States and Spain. Cries of "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!" echoed through America and the Spanish–American War began.

Ostensibly, the war was about Cuban independence. In reality, Spain and America bloodied each other's noses from Havana to Manila and back again that year. What was really at stake were lucrative trade routes. Spain was fighting to keep some vestige of her former domination of the New World after her child colonies all grew up and declared independence. The United States was fighting...well, because of the Maine. And because we wanted to help Cuba. And we were also beginning to feel like a real world player.

So, our ancestors went to war again. Many of the cultural ties genealogists see today are a result at least in some part of the Spanish-American War, especially Hispanic researchers with family in Cuba and Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Following the war, the United States ended up with Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba gained independence. Those still loyal to Spain retreated to the continent, sometimes leaving family behind in Cuba, Florida, Puerto Rico and Guam.

The Spanish-American War left a distinct paper trail and impact on research in six countries. In the United States, we have service records for those who fought in the Spanish-American war. In Cuba, it's considered the War of Independence, and records are cataloged as such. In Puerto Rico, the change in government from Spanish to United States colony resulted in a change in record keeping and the first census taken the year following the war, before the colony was included in the regular decennial United State census starting in 1910. Similar considerations extend to Guam, although it was not included in the decennial census until 1920. Research in the Philippines also changes substantially following the Spanish-American war, with records previously kept in Spanish now kept in English. Residents of the Philippines were enumerated in 1900, 1910, and 1920 United States censuses. Spain also holds records pertinent to the era in her archives, including military records and of course records about her former colonies.

For genealogists, therefore we echo the cry "Remember the Maine," not as a call to war, but to consider the cultural impacts on families today. The following silent movie was filmed by the Thomas Edison company in 1898 and shows in three minutes what the year was like for our ancestors.

For additional resources pertaining to the Spanish-American War and resulting records:

Monday, February 14, 2011

A founding romance

Among the treasures of the National Archives is a little valentine showing the courtship of George Washington and Mistress Martha Custis in 1758. The catalog citation indicates that it was published as a vignette in "A Valentine. Col. Geo. Washington to Mistress Martha Custis. 1758," by Arthur Guiterman, Collier's weekly, 50:14 (Feb. 15, 1913).

In 1758, George Washington was 26 years old. By modern standards, he would be just a young man barely old enough to be trusted with a credit card, and probably still more interested in his X-box than starting a family. In Washington's eyes and for his time, he was already an Army Colonel, a war veteran, state legislative representative, a Virginia land owner, and looking for a wife.

And Mistress Custis was quite a catch. Born Martha Dandridge, she found herself a widow at the age of 26 when her husband Daniel Parke Custis died and left her with two young children, John and Martha. Two children (Daniel and Frances) already in the grave, Martha was no stranger to sorrow.

Martha Dandridge Custis 1757

In the spring of 1758, George met the lovely widow Custis. He was visiting Williamsburg during his first meetings as a member of the Virginia provincial legislature, the House of Burgesses. He heard of her through an acquaintance and decided he had to meet this woman, so he rode the 35 miles to her home on March 16, 1758. For he efforts, he was rewarded with permission to visit again a few days later before he returned to the war. In his French and Indian War uniform, Washington must have been dashing and swept Martha off her feet. Martha's website says:
Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, attractive, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him...

For her part, Martha must have believed that in George she had found someone she could trust as well as love. Although some widows wrote legally binding premarital contracts that protected the assets they had from their previous marriage, Martha did not. For as long as she lived Washington would have the use of Martha’s “widow’s third,” the land, slaves, and money which would be handed down to the Custis heirs after Martha’s death.

The two must have planned to settle down and raise a family, manage their plantations and live the life of Virginia gentry. They could hardly know that in less than 20 years, George would go from state representative and retired veteran to Commander in Chief of a revolutionary force and member of the Continental Congress. They could never have dreamed that they would become the first president and lady of the United States. It seems fitting that their courtship should grace a Valentine's Day vignette, reminding us of the love behind the hero.

For more about Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and George Washington's romance:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Jacobite memoriam

Today marks the anniversary of the Massacre of Glencoe, a famous Scottish Highlands battle which was part of the first Jacobite uprising of Scotland, a result of grudges which had been born, nursed, and handed down to future generations for hundreds of years.

Glencoe, site of the McDonald Jacobite massacre 13 February 1692

On this day, 13 February 1692, disgruntlement turned again to bloodshed on the premise that members of the McDonald clan had been slow to take the oath of allegiance to William of Orange who had ascended the throne of England a few years earlier when his father in law James II/VII had been deposed. William, who was Dutch by birth, ruled England jointly with his wife, Mary Stuart, James's daughter. The couple had ousted her father James in The Glorious Revolution.

Jacob is the Latin form of James, and Jacobites were those who remained loyal to William of Orange's father in law, the deposed King James II/VII. James was a Stuart, and the Stuarts had held the title of High Steward of Scotland ever since Robert II became King of Scots in 1371. From the Scottish perspective, he deserved a little loyalty. So they fought for him, believing him to be the rightful and lawful King of England.

William of Orange disagreed. For one thing because James was Catholic and for another because they disagreed on politics as well as religion. From William's perspective, his father in law James was no better than James's father Charles I who had been beheaded after the English Civil Wars. William and Mary's Glorious Revolution cemented the civil war victory of the Parliamentarians, declaring that kings may govern only by consent of Parliament, and they kicked James out because he disagreed, having come from a long line of absolute monarchs. James fled to France, but his loyal followers remained.

The stage was set for conflict. Both sides took losses, but ultimately William and Mary prevailed. William offered pardon to those who had fought against him in what we see now as very early but far from final skirmishes if the participants would swear an oath of allegiance to him by 1 January 1692. The Scottish chiefs turned to James for advice. Should they take the oath? Or would he return to claim the throne?

James took too long to answer, and ultimately some of the Scottish chiefs missed the 1 January deadline. So on the morning of 13 February 1692, 38 members of the McDonald clan were murdered for not taking the oath, and 40 more died of exposure after their homes were burned. They were killed by the order of the King, but the act was fulfilled by members of another clan who had posed as guests in McDonald homes the night before, which was a shocking violation of Highland law.

The incident sparked a powder keg of resistance which would fuel more than 50 years of Jacobite uprisings. The Glencoe murders became a war cry to fuel the Jacobite movement in part because of the cultural horror of guests killing their hosts. Over the years, many of those who remained loyal to James "The Old Pretender" and his son Bonnie Prince Charles were killed. Many were sentenced to live in exile and transported with or without their families to America, Australia, or New Zealand.

My own ancestors had to flee Scotland and change their name following their ultimate Jacobite defeat in 1745. I still don't know what their name was before the uprisings, only that our family remained in hiding under their assumed name for over 100 years until they came to America in the 1860's. In their place, I don't know what I would have chosen. Would I have taken the oath? Or would I have fought for a king I believed should have my loyalty? Although I'll never know, I am glad to understand my family's part in this historic event.

Execution order issued to Robert Campbell

"You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebells [sic], the McDonalds of Glencoe, and putt [sic] all to the sword under seventy. you are to holde a speciall [sic] care that the old Fox and his sons doe [sic] upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues, that no man escape. This you are to putt [sic] in execution att [sic] fyve [sic] of the clock precisely; and by that time, or verie [sic] shortly after it, I'le [sic] strive to be att [sic] you with a stronger party. if I doe [sic] not come to you att [sic] fyve [sic], you are not to tarry for me, butt [sic] to fall on. This is by the Kings speciall [sic] command, for the good & safety of the Country, that these miscreants be cutt [sic] off root and branch. See that this be putt [sic] in execution without feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not loyal to King nor government, nor a man fitt [sic] to carry Commissions in the Kings service. Expecting you will not faill [sic] in the fullfilling [sic] hereof, as you love your self, I subscribe these with my hand att [sic] Balicholis Feb 12 1692
[signature] R Duncanson
For the [Majesties] service
To Capt Robert Campbell of Glenlyon

For further reading about Jacobites and the Jacobite uprisings: