Marriage Equality Comes To New Jersey

[Editor’s Note: This post was written on October 18th, but posted on October 19th.  Every time I say “Today” it refers to the date of writing rather than publication.]

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down an opinion denying a stay in a case called Garden State Equality v. Dow.  This is the first major state high court decision to come down following the US Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.  Not to toot my own horn, but for months I had been telling anyone who would listen exactly how Garden State Equality would be decided and that marriage equality was inevitable.  Even though the case is technically ongoing, today’s decision proves me right.

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To understand Garden State Equality, one must first go back to 2006 and a New Jersey Supreme Court case called Lewis v. Harris, the first time the Court considered marriage equality.  Lewis was both a landmark and a disappointment.  It was a disappointment because the Court, in a 4-3 split, held that although the New Jersey State Constitution required that same-sex couples be treated equal to heterosexual couples, it was the Legislature’s discretion to determine whether that meant marriages or civil unions.  The Legislature opted for the latter.  Yet Lewis was also a landmark because for the first time every Justice on a state high court agreed that same-sex couples deserved equal treatment.  The “dissenters” would have gone further than the majority and mandated full marriage equality.

Lewis, for its flaws, laid the groundwork for future victory.  Civil unions are okay so long as couples are treated equally, but if that were not the case, then the state had to offer marriage.  Almost immediately after Lewis was handed down, LGBT rights groups operating in New Jersey (Garden State Equality, Lambda Legal, etc.) started gathering evidence to prove that civil unions were not equal.  Simultaneously, LGBT organizations lobbied the Legislature to enact a real marriage equality law–first unsuccessfully in the waning days of the Corzine regime and then successfully during this current term, but vetoed by the Governor Chris Christie.   This meant that there were two options left for LGBT rights groups: (1) get enough votes to overturn Christie’s veto (currently ongoing); or (2) convince the New Jersey Supreme Court that civil unions are inherently unequal (or to quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Skim-Milk Marriage“).  Both of those paths however, would take a lot of time and effort, and neither was guaranteed.

And then came Windsor.

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In the near future, I hope to write two posts about the recent gains of the gay rights movement.  The first is about the almost unrealistic nationwide and worldwide progress made in the past year.  The second is specifically about United States v. Windsor, a case that I would argue is not only the most important case in the history of the American LGBT rights movement, but also the most important American civil rights case since Brown v. Board of Education.  The implications of Windsor have only begun to be felt, but its impact has already been tremendous.  The decision in New Jersey today (and others that will follow in state and federal courts over the next couple of years) is solely because of Windsor.  It is not a stretch to say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and above all Anthony Kennedy are five of the six people most directly responsible for today’s victory.

The sixth person most directly responsible is Barack Obama.  When Windsor was handed down, Obama ordered all federal agencies to fully comply.  Every same-sex married couple is now treated equally in terms of federal benefits so long as the marriage is valid, i.e., recognized by the state where the marriage took place.  Social security, Medicare, immigration, military and veterans benefits, family medical leave, federal estate tax, joint filing, health insurance for spouses of federal employees–the list of federal benefits goes on and on.

President Obama also made a tremendous and specific impact in New Jersey because he instructed that federal benefits applied only to married couples, not those partnered in civil unions.  Those of us who understood what he was doing rejoiced.  Effectively, he told the courts that in terms of marriage he would not allow or accept “separate but equal.”*  Marriage is marriage and nothing else is adequate for federal purposes.**

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When Garden State Equality came before Judge Mary Jacobson in the New Jersey Superior Court this summer, the legal team for the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment.  Basically, this means that (in a civil trial) one party in the case believes the law and the facts are so overwhelmingly on his/her/their side as to render a trial completely unnecessary.  In Garden State Equality, the plaintiffs argued that the lack of federal benefits to partners in civil unions meant that they would be treated patently unequal and only by offering full marriage equality could New Jersey correct the harm.  Although everyone files motions for summary judgment, granting them, especially in such major cases, is a rarity.  It is practically an invitation for an appellate court to overturn to overturn a trial court, something trial court judges hate.  (Also, judges tend to believe that everyone has a right to argue their day in court.)

Garden State Equality is as close to a perfect case as you can get for granting a motion for summary judgment.  Because of the Lewis demand for equality, the Windsor requirement that the federal government recognize married same-sex couples,*** and the Obama Administration’s refusal to treat marriages and civil unions equally, it was unthinkable that this case could result in anything other than a win for the plaintiffs.  On September 27, 2013, Judge Jacobson granted the motion for summary judgment and held that New Jersey had to offer marriage equality as of October 21.  The Christie Administration asked for a stay in judgment–asked the court to put the decision on hold until the case worked its way through the appellate courts.  Judge Jacobson refused.  Rather than appeal to the next level, the Christie Administration went straight to the top and appealed directly to the State Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case in January.  The Christie Administration also asked the Court for an emergency stay in judgement.  It was not so unusual–or unreasonable–a request.  (For example, in the Prop 8 case, the Court of Appeals put a stay on the trial court’s decision to strike down the law so that it could be litigated up to the US Supreme Court.)

Today the State Supreme Court came down with a ruling, and it was a doozy.  The Court denied the Christie Administration’s request for a stay, which means that same-sex marriages start at 12:01 a.m on October 21 (and there will be City Halls open at 12:01 a.m.)  Frankly, I was a bit surprised; granting a stay is almost routine–again, especially in such a major case with such big implications.  What is more amazing though is that the judicial opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and joined in full by the entire Court, was a decision on the merits of the case, which is almost never done when deciding whether to grant a stay.  Moreover, the Court all but said how it was planning to rule in January: “[T]he State has not shown a reasonable probability that it will succeed on the merits.”  In other words, although the case is not officially over, it’s over.

Everyone knows that the case is over.  Even Chris Christie, rather than fume and rage, has simply said that he disagrees with the decision but has ordered state officials to comply.  The outcome was inevitable.  Windsor made it so, and sooner rather than later all states will have marriage equality.

[Postscript: On Monday October 21, Governor Christie advised the State to withdraw its appeal.  It is theoretically possible but doubtful that a third-party will be allowed to intervene.  Therefore, most likely there will not be an oral argument in January, and undoubtedly marriage equality is now the law of New Jersey from here on out. ]

Footnotes:

* This was not a surprising position from the President.  During the Windsor/Prop 8 arguments, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to rule that civil union states must adopt marriage–the so-called “Eight State Solution” (which will dwindle to six as of Monday).  Allegedly, the President was involved in crafting the Eight-State Solution.

** There was an argument put forward that civil unions are a form a marriage and the federal government should recognize them as such.  It’s a rational argument legally but deeply problematic in real world application.  Among those problems is, who would defend civil unions before a court?  A Democrat-led state government won’t do it because they favor marriage equality (the same is true for the vast majority of same-sex couples), and a Republican-led state government won’t do it because that would be a defense of the rights of gays and lesbians.  Although the Christie Administration did argue this position before the New Jersey courts, those courts cannot force the federal government to comply with New Jersey law.  Had the Christie Administration sued the federal government in federal court to demand recognition of civil unions, then I am certain the state case would have been put on hold until the federal case was decided.  It’s a moot point now for New Jersey, but I suspect other courts looking at civil union claims will see that New Jersey’s Supreme Court made the distinction and will subsequently follow.

*** In Windsor, the Supreme Court did not address civil unions because that was not part of the case.  Nevertheless, reading between the lines of the majority opinion, one gets the sense that the majority, if faced with the question, would not find civil unions equal to marriage.

Genealogy Roadshow – Austin

The final week of Genealogy Roadshow comes from Austin, Texas, that little pocket of blue in America’s largest red state.  Specifically, the program was recorded at the Driskill Hotel, about which we were told much, but which I missed because life is short and duty called.

I have not counted, but this week’s Genealogy Roadshow probably had the fewest televised guests.  There were no bite-sized appearances that lasted all of two minutes.  There were only six participants in total, which meant a lot of history, a lot of filler, and a lot of fluff.  This week also had some odd editing, which sometimes made it seem like the powers-that-be sacrificed part of the actual story for time constraints.

The problem I have with Genealogy Roadshow is that may be too small in is scope.  Perhaps this is a byproduct of a limited budget and time constraints in the research.  But I think the show has rather myopically chosen to just show what makes people American, which makes it more like Who Do You Think You Are than I feel comfortable with.  It also excludes so many people whose ancestors were not a part of the major events of American history or have recent immigrant ancestors.  It’s why I think going on the show would be a waste of time for me, which is a very sad thing to admit.

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A caveat:  Names and family trees flashed by very quickly, and while I tried to get them correct, it is possible that I wrote down something wrong.  Please forgive me if I made a mistake.

Denise Garza Steusloff loves Texas.  I mean, she loves Texas.  Almost to the point of tears.  (Loving one’s state that much is a phenomenon I just don’t understand.  There is something unsettlingly antebellum about it.)  Denise has two big stories in her family. (1) There is a family legend that her father’s family was descended from Sephardic Jews who fled the Canary Islands to escape the Inquisition.  This is especially relevant to her family as her sister is raising her children Jewish.  (2)  Being Tejano is very important to Denise, and she feels (justifiably) that the contribution of Tejanos to Texas’s War of Independence against Mexico has been overlooked because Tejanos “don’t look American.”  (It’s a heartbreaking statement.)  Denise wanted to know if any of her Tejano ancestors fought in the war, which would allow her to join the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), which I guess is an honor, but as with the DAR, it just seems like there is so much baggage attached to membership.

The first question that (D.) Joshua Taylor dealt with was the Jewish heritage question.  Is Denise the descendant of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition? (Or were they crypto-Jews, which she used interchangeably, but which are actually different?  Crypto-Jews were public Catholics but secretly maintained their Judaism.  Jews who fled the Inquisition may have done so to stay Jewish publicly and privately.)  As you can imagine, when you are trying to hide something to avoid torture, exile, imprisonment, or death, you don’t leave much in the way of records.  Alas, there was no paper trail for Denise. But… there is the DNA test, and that, according to Taylor, proved that Denise is a descendant of Sephardic Jews because her DNA matches that of people who are known to be the descendants of Sephardic Jews.  I am an avowed DNA skeptic, which I have said many times, and I just think it is somewhat irresponsible to say that a DNA test (probably Y-Chromosome, but never explicitly stated) is definite and dispositive evidence of descent.  Nevertheless, I welcome Denise to the tribe and say, “Mishpucha!”

As to her second question, there were a lot of names that were thrown around, so bear with me.  There was a Simon Casillas who had a brother Ambrosio Casillas who was Denise’s 3rd great-grandfather who had an ancestor named Juan Casillas who was in the Mexican Army before the Revolution.  Fortunately, there was a pension record filed by Juan’s children (with testimonial evidence) that stated that Juan was at the Battle of Bexar.  Ergo, Denise qualified for the DRT, and lo and behold, there was someone from the organization there to give her a membership, a flag, and a hug.  Taylor said, “Mazel Tov.”

The next participant was Earl Campbell.  Now, I am not a fan of football (the American kind), so I had no idea who he is, but he was apparently a great player in college (at the University of Texas) and in the pros (at the Houston Oilers).  Even though I didn’t know who he was, the people there did, and after his segment, people took pictures with him.  Earl wanted to know about his father Burke (who died when Earl was in 5th grade) and grandfather Julius.  Apparently Earl’s family goes back to at least 1863 in Tyler, Texas.  Both of Earl’s grandfathers were landowners (although his maternal grandfather’s land was lost after he died, and Earl bought it back.)  Furthermore Burke was a Black Army AirCorp pilot and was at D-Day.

Marc Airhart had done his own genealogy but hit a roadblock with his ancestor George Airhart who, according to family legend, was adopted.  Taylor was very excited by this search because the name Airhart is so unusual and therefore easier to research.  George served in the Civil War for the Confederacy and was at Vicksburg where he was captured.  Also captured at Vicksburg, a William and an Alexander Airhart.  Looking at old census records determined that there was some relation to each other and to an Eliza Airhart.  After looking at the 1880 Census and an obituary, Eliza, it turned out, was a “mulatto” half-sister of George.  Also apparently of William and Alexander, although I am not sure how they determined that William, Alexander, and George were brothers.  Marc submitted to a DNA test, and his results included a bit of sub-Saharan DNA, which is extremely unusual for a white person.  This led only to more questions, all of which went unanswered.

Sheila Jobe lived in Texas all her life.  She had heard two stories, the first is that there was a murder in her maternal grandmother’s line, which she wanted to explore, warts and all. Also a great-uncle did research and through him she has a roadmap to how she may be connected to the Mayflower on her maternal grandfather’s side.  Kenyatta Berry told Sheila about her ancestor Isaac L Page of Maine who was in the Civil War.  Isaac’s muster record showed that he was left sick in the hospital at Gettysburg following the battle.  He was also at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, which meant he was at three extremely bloody and horrific battles.  After the war he returned to Maine, married Arletta Braun, and had five children with her.  One day, Isaac walked into the home with a pistol when Arletta was in the kitchen.  She said “Don’t shoot” but he shot her 6 times and killed her.  Isaac’s aunt Sarah Horn said he didn’t remember anything; he had blacked out completely.  Isaac was placed in an insane asylum, and while there he killed himself by jumping off a bridge.  Berry wanted to examine why he killed his wife, and she offered a theory, probably correct, that he may have suffered from PTSD from his time at war.

As to whether Sheila could trace her origins to the Mayflower?  Berry says everyone wants to be related to the 102 survivors of the Mayflower.  I would just like to say here and now, that not everyone.  I am quite happy about the fact that I do not come from the Mayflower, and I would not trade my heritage for anyone’s.  Berry told Sheila that she is not related to just one person, but four people who were on the Mayflower.  Sheila got a silver book of Mayflower descendants through five generations.  (There were a lot of gifts in this episode.)

Max Hibben wanted to know if he was related to Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island.  Because Roger Williams was a rebel like Max.  (If I had played a drinking and took a sip each time someone said, “rebel,” I would have dropped dead from alcohol poisoning before the show ended.)  Taylor thought that there is a family resemblance between Max and Roger Williams (“America’s first rebel”) from the old portraits.  Whatever.  Don’t get me wrong; as far as our founders go, Williams was definitely one of the better ones.  WIlliams negotiated and treated with the natives (unlike almost everyone else).  Max is related–11 generations back.  But now the big reveal, Taylor is also related to Williams, so they are cousins.  Another famous relative was Anson Perry Windsor who also descended from Williams.  In the Second Great Awakening he became a Mormon (which Max also is) and made his way out to Utah.  I didn’t really catch the rest but Windsor had something to do with the time when President Buchanan called out the federal troops to Utah.  Windsor was a rebel too.  (I’m reminded of the SNL sketch when TIna Fey played Sarah Palin during the Vice-Presidential debate and said, “Maverick” over and over again.)

The final guest was Julie Delio who wanted to know how her family fit with American (and world) history.  Julie believed that dead relatives easier to deal with than living ones, which is not a very happy thought.  In 1985 Julie asked her mother to write a history, but decided her mother’s notes were completely unreliable.  Berry told Julie that her ancestors came from Ulster Province in Ireland.  The family immigrated in 1735 or 1745 to Philadelphia and then moved to Rockbridge County, Virginia.  There were clergy in the family, one of whom built a Presbyterian church in Rockbridge.  Julie, as it turned out, shared an ancestor with Samuel Houston. But that’s not the only governor of Texas she is related to.  Berry told her that she is also related to Rick Perry.  Julie is stunned.  I would be too.  I can’t imagine ever wanting to have anything in common with Rick Perry.  Ever.  Especially DNA.  The truth is though that there are only so many ancestors to go around.  Sooner or later we are related to everyone.  We just lack the documentation to show it.

At the end of the show, useless host Emmett Miller wondered what will next week’s episode will bring.  The answer is nothing because the show’s season is finished.  This is what I mean when I complain about the editing.
But now my complaining is done.  All genealogy shows are finished for now.  Hopefully the next post I write will have nothing to do with genealogy television.

Genealogy Roadshow–San Francisco

This week, Genealogy Roadshow left its heart in San Francisco and made sure to wear some flowers in its hair.

Truth be told, I have been looking forward to this episode more than the previous two.  With all due respect to Nashville and Detroit, neither city’s history–nor in fact any US city with the exception of New York (and arguably Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia)–has anything as colorful as San Francisco’s.  There’s just so much there.  The Gold Rush, the railroad, the Chinese and Irish immigrations, the 1906 earthquake, the Counterculture, the Gay Rights Movement–San Francisco is just so darn interesting.  I also have a small connection to the place; my great-great-grandfather’s brother moved out there and I recently discovered a whole large family on the West Coast.

This week’s episode took place at the Old San Francisco Mint, and although the history of the building is usually the best time for a bathroom break, I actually thought it was rather interesting.  Mints are fascinating places.  I loved visiting the one in Philadelphia.  I also remember looking at my coins to see if I could tell they were printed.  I believe it was a P for Philadelphia, an S for San Francisco, and a D for Denver, but if I am wrong I am sure some kind soul will correct me in the comment section.

As always, we are guided by our intrepid hosts Kenyatta Berry and Joshua Taylor, the latter of him looks different, perhaps it is a snazzier haircut.  I hope fame is not going to his head.  (I also wonder about the other genealogists who do work behind-the-scenes.  I highly doubt just Berry and Taylor do all the research.)

Our first participant was Lisa Gates, a fourth generation Californian, whose mother is the family history and who was at the Mint for the family presentation.  Apparently Lisa’s mother told her that they were related to James Marshall, the man who discovered gold in California, but other relatives said that was not true.  Lisa also wanted to know about the circumstances surrounding the death of her great-great-grandfather Clinton Augustus Edson.  He was murdered, but the reasons were unclear.  Was it an angry, cuckolded husband furious about an affair his wife had with his boss Clinton?  Was it a disgruntled employee?  (Could the disgruntled employee be disgruntled because his boss had an affair with his wife?)  Berry traced Lisa Gates ancestry back to Maine and found no evidence to connect her to James Marshall, who was from New Jersey (Lisa’s reaction?  She tells her mother, “You’re in trouble.”)  Berry was however, able to tell Lisa how Edson was murdered.  An employee named Charles Becker killed him.  As Edson was in is 50’s and Becker and his wife were in their 70’s at the time, it was probably not about an affair.  Becker alleged that Edson hadn’t paid him for three years and owed him $800.  Becker filed an unsuccessful lawsuit and then took matters in his own hands.  Becker killed Edson and was sentenced to San Quentin for eight years for manslaughter.  Lisa joked about whether they still owned the Becker family and would be hunted down.

Cecilia Chen is a fourth generation Chinese American in the San Francisco Bay area.  Her father said that they were related to a gangster named Big Jim Chen.  Cecilia wanted to know about how her family and her connection to her history as an Asian-American.  Taylor told her that Big Jim Chen was very hard to trace.  Then we get a history of the Chinese immigration, how they were first embraced and then in the 1870’s blamed for an economic recession which led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and which in turn led to a rise in criminal activity and secret societies.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943 and the quotas were eliminated in 1965.  For Cecilia’s family, her grandmother Mary Fat Yee came to San Francisco with her family from New York, but it was neither direct not easy.  (Cuba was involved somehow in their travels.)  The family had to carry picture identification with them at all times, which was bad for them, but great for Cecilia who got to see pictures of her great-grandparents Fat Yee and Chin Shee.  Fat Yee was a native-born citizen, but still he was interrogated because he was Chinese.  Chin Shee came from the same region of China as Big Jim Chen (who also went by the name Chin Shin), but other than that Taylor could not find a connection, sort promising that he would keep trying.  Big Jim Chen was apparently a really good gangster, which meant that he was really good at hiding the paper trail.  So in the absence of documents, only the oral history is left.  Then Taylor says something about the American dream, and I kind of tuned out thinking I had wandered into Who Do You Think You Are.

Jennifer Weed’s great-great-grandfather was John W. Lambert, the inventor of the first gasoline-powered automobile–years ahead of Henry Ford and others.  The story in Weed’s family was that there was a feud with Ford, and no one in her family has driven a Ford since.  Taylor confirms that Lambert did invent the gasoline-powered automobile (and was also the first crash in American history when he ran into a tree), but there was no evidence of a feud, so Jennifer can safely drive a Ford.

Dava Segal’s family was from the South and she wanted to know if they were involved in the Civil War.  They were. Her ancestor George Efner was in the Confederate Army, the Shreveport Rangers from Louisiana.  They were an elite side who fought in major battles including the Siege of Vicksburg, where Efner was wounded and taken as a POW.  Despite taking an oath of allegiance, Efner returned to the fighting, and I think I heard that he was taken as a POW again.  One of Efner’s ancestors, Joseph Efner, fought in the Revolutionary War under Benedict Arnold at both battles of Saratoga.  Although no one said this out loud, Dava now can petition to be in the DAR.

Casey Robbins was researching her father’s side when she discovered that she may be connected to the Folger family, one of the original families to settle Nantucket.  Benjamin Franklin was also a Folger and Casey wanted to know if there was a connection to him.  There was a history segment about Franklin’s early life (being from Philadelphia, I am quite familiar with Ben Franklin.  There was however, a really interesting article about his sister Jane a couple of months back in The New Yorker.)  Casey did have a connection to Nantucket; her 5th great-grandfather Jesse Bunker was a Nantucket whaler who died at sea.  Bunker’s widow was Eunice Folger Bunker.  Eunice’s line could be traced back to Peter Folger (Casey’s 10th great-grandfather), who was one of the first settlers of Nantucket.  He learned the languages of the native tribes, was a court clerk, and wrote all the early records.  His wife Mary Morell came over as an indentured servant, but Peter paid $20 to buy her contract and married her (“the best appropriation of money I ever made.”)  Apparently Mary Morell was mentioned by Herman Melville in Moby Dick as Franklin’s grandmother.  ( I need to try to read that book again, but every time I give up.)  Benjamin Franklin and Casey are first cousins 10 times removed.

Michael Logan got a DNA test.  When he went to give blood for the bone marrow registry, he was discovered to have an unusual pathogen, which will be fatal if he gets sick. On that less-than-cheerful note, Berry went through the results of his admixture test–primarily Northern European descent, some Southern and Eastern European descent, and a tiny amount of North African descent.  His paternal line (Y-Chromosome) appeared to originate in Scandinavia (“ABBA country, right?”)  Maybe it’s just me, but that seemed rather glib and uncomfortable: “I could die.” “Okay; let’s check your DNA results.”  I think that perhaps different decisions should have been taken in the editing room.

Karla McLaren had troubled getting past her grandparents on one branch of her tree for her own research, so Taylor tells her about her grandfather, his father Delaney Rogers, and Delaney’s father who fought for the Union in Civil War from 1861-64.

Jamie O’Keefe is a 5th generation San Francisco native whose great-grandparents, Frank and Anne (Savage) O’Keefe, met as a result of the 1906 earthquake (you knew they had to get that in somewhere).  There was confusion about how they met.  Was his home destroyed and he stayed in her barn or was hers destroyed and she stayed at his bar?  According to Berry, Timothy O’Keefe, Jamie’s great-great-grandfather, immigrated from Ireland in 1874.  He ended up in San Francisco where the Irish were a third of the population.  In 1896, Timothy opened a grocery store and saloon (O’Keefe’s Saloon).  Seven years later, he died and his son Edward took over.  Edward’s younger brother Frank was 19.  Anne Savage was also of Irish descent.  She and her sister owned  business which primarily sold ostrich feathers.  Frank, in the Mission District, survived as did his business and much of his neighborhood.  Anne was not so lucky.  In 1909 Frank and Anne were married, all of which points out to her taking refuge in his saloon.

Finally Jim Saltzman wanted to know about his relative who was reportedly a survivor of the horrific 1860 Wiyot Massacre on an island off Humboldt County.  He brought in a walking stick that he thought belonged to his ancestor Eliza Lindgren, but his mother said it belonged to Josephine Beach, who he thought was Eliza’s sister, and who was the survivor in question.  Josephine got lost in a fog, and as a result, she escaped the massacre.  The rest of her family was not so lucky.  It turned out that Eliza and Josephine were not only not sisters, they were not even from the same tribe.  Using the 1900 censuses (General and Indian), Taylor was able to tell Jim that although Eliza and Josephine were not sisters, there was a connection–Eliza’s daughter married Josephine’s son.  The walking stick belonged to Jim’s ancestor.

And that is it for this week.  Next time, the season finale.

The Ellis Island Myth

On this week’s Genealogy Roadshow, I and many, many other genealogy fans noticed a glaring mistake–host Joshua Taylor seemed to acknowledge that the surname of a participant’s ancestor was changed at Ellis Island.  Now, most people probably didn’t nothing and presumably don’t care very much, but in the genealogy community spreading this myth is one of the cardinal sins.  Names were almost never changed at Ellis Island for a variety of reasons–not the least of which being that the passenger lists were created at the location of departure.  That is why it was both shocking and disappointing to hear the President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies perpetuate a wide-spread story that may be romantic but is blatantly false.  Dick Eastman has a very long post on his blog dispelling the myth.  If you don’t believe him, then try the New York Public Library.    

Anyway, to give credit where credit is due, Taylor has explained himself and sort of apologized, which is good because a show’s credibility is on the line when the viewers can spot clear errors.  Which is not to say that one blog post makes it all better–more people will have seen the show than will read this post, Taylor’s, Eastman’s, the New York Public Library’s, or any of the other zillion posts out there on the Internet dispelling the Ellis Island myth.  But it’s better than nothing.