Judy Russell (the Legal Genealogist) at NERGC


I have the privilege of interviewing Judy Russell, one of the keynote speakers at NERGC. I knew who she was long before I had the chance to meet her and listen to her speak. You may know her as a legal expert who uses that expertise to bridge the past and add historical context to her ancestors, and teaches us to do the same. You may also know her as a DNA expert. I know her as a fellow social historian/genealogist and look forward to meeting her again.

I met her in person at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council annual meeting a couple of years ago. One of her talks involved a murder case in the 1800s based on a new form (at the time) of medicine and potential medical malpractice. Since medicine in everyday life is one of my special interests (and the topic of my master’s thesis) I was hooked.

Here are my questions and her responses. I love how her humor shows through, one of the many reasons she is such a great speaker. I hope that you will come to NERGC to hear her and many other experts cover a variety of topics related to genealogy, and my favorite, bringing our ancestors to live through social history.

1) What sparked your interest in family history, and how did you come to combine law and family history?

My mother’s family is mostly Scots-Irish — that means they’re storytellers. And I grew up sitting out under the trees at my grandparents’ farm listening to the stories. Finally I realized it was time to start seeing whether any of the stories were true! Combining law and family history was simply the natural outgrowth of my formal training as a lawyer and the discovery, as a genealogist, that just about every record we use is impacted by its legal context.

2) How do you find the material and/or interesting cases you use for a blog post or lecture?

First and foremost, I’m a reader: I read books and articles and blog posts and Facebook posts and anything I can get my hands on. Some things are sent by folks who read my blog or who know I have a legal background and need help in understanding a record in their own families; some things I just stumble across. The reality is that every set of records we might ever look at will have its own set of stories — we just need to read to find them.

3) What is your favorite story that you have come across, either from your own family or someone else’s family?

One? One favorite story? For someone with Scots-Irish ancestry? That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is! I’ve never met a story I didn’t love, and some of them are even true! (Well, at least partially. The other thing about the Scots-Irish is that we never let the truth interfere with a good story.) If I had to pick just one, I’d probably have to say it was the discovery that I qualify for membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. To qualify, you have to be able to prove your ancestor lived in the Republic of Texas. Mine was indicted by the Republic of Texas. For bigamy. (I love my family.)

4) Why is adding social context to family history research so important?

Because without social context family history is just a set of begats: John and Mary begat James. The social context tells us what lives John and Mary led, how they struggled to get where they got, what it was like when James was born. What they wore, what they ate, how they lived. It’s the stories that bring our families to life, and the social context helps us tell those stories.

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Buried in Snow


We have been buried in snow in Boston–receiving 90+ inches of snow since the end of January. We broke all kinds of snowfall records, as well as extreme cold records. Roofs have collapsed, public transportation has failed in an epic manner, and even with modern conveniences such as snowblowers and heat, people in Boston are snow weary.

I have thought a lot about my ancestors and how they dealt with extreme weather. They didn’t have modern conveniences. Elizabeth Shown Mills has pulled together a list of articles on 3 other cold and snowy winters.

In the winter of 1717, so much snow fell in New England that people referred to it for years as the big snow. Puritans even cancelled church for two weeks in a row. Mail was delivered by young boys on horseshoes.

1816 is referred to as the year without summer. Snow fell in Vermont even during the summer. The winters of 1812-1816 were all very cold in New England and was one of the reasons for migration to Ohio.

On the other side of the country, the Northwest experienced 4-6 feet of snow around Puget Sound in 1916.

Boston.com put together a history of snow removal from Boston streets, from the times of carriages and wagons through trains and subways. Like today, people had to get to work, and many would have to walk miles to work in dangerous conditions on those rare occasions when the subway shut down.

How did your ancestors deal with extreme temperatures and precipitation? How did they keep warm, and how did they clear away the snow? Did weather, such as the type experienced in the year without a summer, play a role in the decision to move to more temperate climes?

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When words matter

A few days ago, the Royall House and Slave Quarters posted this on their Facebook page: “Language matters…we very intentionally avoid certain terms — master, slave, owned — that we believe falsely describe these people and their relationships. Mastery can be earned, but it can’t be bought. Enslavement is a condition forced upon people, not one that defines them.”

I have thought about this a lot since I first saw the post. What terms do we use that force our ancestors into certain categories? Do we use derogatory terms, without or without know they were offensive, when describing our ancestors?

When I first started researching my Loyalist ancestor Thomas Sumner I posted something on Facebook about my Tory ancestor. While I vaguely knew the term was derogatory, I didn’t really think much about it until one of my Facebook friends firmly but nicely corrected me and told me how proud she was of all her Loyalist ancestors and how in Canada they are heroes. I have never used the term Tory to describe him since then because he deserves so much better than that. He deserves to be described in positive terms.

What terms do you use, or you have used in the past, that should be replaced with more accurate descriptions?


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Channeling my Loyalist ancestor

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I attended the re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party on Dec 16. We were each given a program with a blue or yellow slip of paper. I later found out that the blue papers represented Loyalist views and the yellow papers represented Patriot views. I had been thinking of my Loyalist ancestor Thomas Sumner, so was happy to have a blue piece of paper.


The first part of the re-enactment was dialogue between actors about how to handle the tea on the ships. If you agreed you shouted “hear, hear” or “huzzah”. If you disagreed, you shouted “fie, fie” or “boo”. Most of the people around me were Patriots, but I stuck to my Loyalist part and, all in good fun and with lots of smiles, always shouted the opposite of my pew mates.

I was trying to put on Thomas’s shoes and try to think what he would have though. It certainly wouldn’t have been in good fun for him to be in opposition to his neighbors. As far as I know, he wasn’t in Boston, but he and his family were driven out of their home in Vermont and lost all their property to the Patriots. His views would have been sincere. He was a judge, and perhaps the oaths he had taken and  his occupation that involved upholding the law every day influenced his decisions. I doubt that it was an easy thought process though. Many Loyalists saw many problems with the king and Parliament, but in spite of that, retained their loyalty. All these thoughts crossed my mind as I shouted “fie, fie” or “hear, hear”.


When the floor was opened up to us, I was the very first person at the mic to say my part. “Like all Englishmen we are universally represented in Parliament. The Patriots must stop complaining that we do not have a voice in England.” I wanted to do this to honor Thomas, who is not well known in my family, compared to our Patriot ancestors. Throughout the night I posted on Facebook as if I was a Loyalist.

As we left the meetinghouse and marched to the harbor behind a fife and drum corps (fun but not authentic), I continued thinking of what Thomas would have thought if he had been there. Would he have even gone to the harbor? Would he have tried to stop the ship raid? Since he wasn’t there, what did he think when he heard the news?


As I watched the Patriots throwing the tea into the harbor, the part of me that was channeling Thomas thought “you bloody fools!”. While perhaps nobody could know what would happen only 15 months later in Lexington and Concord, many feared that this would happen. Thomas may have been among those.


This was such a wonderful experience for me to put myself into an ancestors shoes. While I certainly don’t know what he was thinking and feeling, I could make some educated guesses that helped me see a historical event from a different perspective than I had ever seen it before. I am so glad I received that blue paper!

Posted in daily life, Walking in their shoes | 2 Comments

Pictures Inspire a Personal History

My mom sent me two CDs this week with pictures of my sister and me when we were young. As I was looking at them, I realized there are a lot of stories there that I could write down, and other stories that I need to learn from others, and the importance of writing my personal history.



This is a picture I can write a story about: My sister, two cousins and I are getting ready for a quadruple date. We were visiting in Arizona (where we had lived previously) so my sister and I invited boys we knew from a few years before. I asked Lafe because I had a crush on him when I was in junior high. I later found out he was dating one of my best friends from Arizona (who I apparently hadn’t kept in touch with), and they later married. I remember that detail, but don’t remember what we did for our date.

While this scene with my cousins only occurred once, countless similar scenes played out with my 5 sisters and me at home. I am the oldest, so it was usually me and the sister dressed in blue who were getting ready, while the younger sisters watched and/or helped. Our bathroom at home was tiny, but there was such excitement was we got ready for dances and dates. [Thinking further about this could lead to stories about sharing the bathroom when 3 of us had to get ready for early morning seminary, to some of the boys that we dated, church dances we attended, etc]. These stories would be improved if I solicited my sisters and parents to share their memories too, so there is a more well-rounded and well-remembered story, since we will remember different details.


This is a picture where I need help telling a story. This is the same sister and me, this time with my grandmother, picking poppies by the side of the road in southwest New Mexico. My grandmother died when I was only 11 and since we lived far away, I don’t remember her as well as I would like. I have questions about why she loved poppies and why she went out with foam rollers in her hair. Not that I care, but most women wouldn’t want to be seen in public with curlers in their hair. I asked my mom and, while she doesn’t know the exact details of when this picture was taken, she guessed “that it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, my mom saw the flowers, stopped the car and took her little granddaughters poppy- picking . She was great at making impromptu, fun memories.” I have several aunts and uncles that I can ask, just to get their guess and their perspective, again making a well-rounded, detailed story, or in this case, a potential story.

Both of these pictures reminded me that I need to write my own personal history, and seek out the memories of others to bring in all the details and perspectives. The best time to do this is now, while my parents, aunts and uncles are still alive.

Too often, we focus on fleshing out our ancestor’s lives, but forget that we too will someday be somebody’s ancestor and we can help them by leaving them our life story.

My homework assignment is to ask my aunts and uncles about what they can contribute to what was going on in the picture with my grandmother, as the first piece of my personal history.

What is your homework assignment?

Posted in daily life, Displaying Family History, Personal History, Writing | Leave a comment

The effect of political events and religious controversies on your ancestors


Photo credit: Raphaël Thiémard from Belgique (Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event led to expanded freedoms for millions of people in Eastern European countries that had been under Soviet Communist rule. Yet, embracing these freedoms did not come easily to many who had lived most of their lives under Communist rule. My sister served a mission for our church in Latvia in 2003-2005. She said that many of the older generation had lost hope, even though they had obtained their freedom in the early 1990s. They had lost the ability to make choices–even when offered choices—because they had been told all their lives where to work, what to eat and where to worship. When she first told me this several years ago, I was struck by how a government should yield such power over people that they could not change once that government was removed. This is perhaps an extreme example, but we know that political events and religious strife inevitable affected our ancestors–just as they affect us and our families today.

Let’s think about some political events that may have affected our ancestors. Changes in government are powerful political events. Think of England–going back and forth between staunch Protestants, at least one Catholic, and Protestants in name who leaned towards Catholicism, and for a few years, a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Your ancestor’s fortunes could easily go from bad to good or vice versa depending on their political and religious leanings.

During the 1620s through late 1630s, thousands of Puritans came to Massachusetts to escape what they called the Popish religion of King James and King Charles and to worship as they wished. When the Civil War started and things were looking good for the Puritans the mass migration stopped and people remained in England, and many from the colonies returned to England. Migrating to a new continent with unfamiliar plants and animals, and recreating the culture they had known in England was a major undertaking.

Boundary changes, new laws, social policies, rebellions such as the Revolutionary War in the US, internal conflict that led to the US Civil War, and world wars are other examples that definitely affected our ancestors in one way or another.

Religious conflict is another source of external conditions that can wreak havoc on a family. Think of the witch trials (not just the Salem witch trials), the banishment of women and men such as Anne Hutchinson and William Rogers, and the many persecutions and wars that have been fought and continue to be fought in the name of religion.

While here in the US we celebrate our veterans on Tuesday and remember our many blessings later this month, spend some time thinking about your ancestors and how political and/or religious events positively or negatively impacted them. Please share here some of the events that you come up with.


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Description of who allegedly performed the Indian depredations

Going back to Levi and the Indian depredations. After discussing his losses, the deposition turned to who allegedly committed the thefts.

Levi responded that he knew it was Indians because he “trailed the cattle, found horse trakes and Indian tracks following the trail.” He said he knew they were Navajo for two reasons. First, a friendly Indian called Indian Frank warned him about the Navajos. Second, the tracks of the Navajos were long, slim and neat, while the tracks of other (unspecified tribes) of Indians were broad and short. He claimed the thefts occurred in January 1866.


The questions then moved to why he had left his land. He claimed he was in fear of his life because 2 men had been killed and another wounded. Apparently the man who was wounded was in his group when they were leaving. Levi said between 6-12 Indians participated in the attack. Upon cross-examination, Levi used the word “emphatically” to emphasize how much he was in fear of losing his life, not just his property if he remained in Kanab.

Then the government asked if he had ever transferred the property to another, or either provoked or acted in revenge towards the Indians. Levi replied No.

When Levi returned six months later, most of the buildings were still standing. The government official clarified that he felt he was sustained the loss of the land because he felt that remaining there put in his life in danger, not because he was forcibly removed or the buildings were actually destroyed.

The US attorney then asked whether the land he was claiming was unsurveyed land belonging to the US government. Levi replied in the affirmative. Then it gets interesting. “Counsel for the government moves to strike out all testimony with regard to the injury of this land, buildings, corrals, and crops for the reason that it appears that the land belonged to the defendant [US government], that claimant was a squatter or trespasser upon said land, and that the defendant is not responsible for any loss he sustained.”

A blow to Levi who had purchased the land and built improvements, albeit perhaps illegally. It seems that he knew in the 1890s that it was US land. This has consequences when the final judgment of his claim is made.

Did you ancestors live through raids or attacks? Did they leave their property because they felt unsafe? I think it’s important to understand the other side of the story–the Native American viewpoint. I am still looking for sources, but trying to understand all sides when conflict is involved helps put the situation in historical context.

Information from the Indian depredations claims are from: Record Group123, Records of the United States Court of Claims, Indian Depredation Case File #9173, Levi Savage (this is how NARA referred to it when asking if I wanted a copy).


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