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Honoring Our Ancestors
May 28, 2015


Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Apologies for showing up late in your mail box this month, but I'm just back from a long vacation (where I naturally photographed a variety of cemeteries), so am still gearing back up. As you'll see from this issue, plenty has been going on in the genealogical world, not the least of which is the completion and opening of the Peopling of America Center at Ellis Island (be sure to add it to your list of must-sees the next time you're in NYC!). And I'm delighted that two overlooked WWI heroes – (Willam) Henry Johnson and William Shemin – will finally receive the Medal of Honor next week!

Until next time, stay cool and keep sleuthing!



Multi-Layered Celebration at Ellis Island

Upon receiving her award, fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg struck a Statue of Liberty-inspired pose with SOLEIF President, Stephen Briganti, gazing on.

There was plenty to celebrate at the Gala in the Great Hall held at the freshly renamed Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF) on May 19th. The event marked the completion of the Peopling of America Center, the formal post-Sandy re-opening, the bestowal of Family Heritage Awards to Diane von Furstenberg, Patti LuPone and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the naturalization of eight new American citizens. Click here to see more highlights.

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Memorial Day: Correcting the Story of World War I Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson

It's almost a century later than would have been ideal, but Sgt. Henry Johnson* and Sgt. William Shemin are being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama at a White House ceremony for their heroics in World War I. Both had been overlooked previously, though Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre avec Palme from the French government.

Not surprisingly, a fair bit of information about both soldiers can be found online, and while there's no dispute about their bravery, personal details about Sgt. Shemin are mostly accurate, while Sgt. Johnson's are frequently distorted. I'd like to take this opportunity to correct some of the misinformation circulating about Sgt. Henry Johnson.

  • His full name was William Henry Johnson, not, as reported by some, Henry Lincoln Johnson.** Sgt. Johnson preferred to go by his middle name of Henry but occasionally used his full name for formal purposes.
  • He was born in West Salem, a district of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The notion that he was born in Alexandria, Virginia, stems from his profile in the book Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War by Theodore Roosevelt Jr. but is mistaken. Alexandria is a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the soldier was living at the time the book was written, so perhaps the misunderstanding has its origins in that geographic proximity. But Sgt. Johnson himself consistently reported West(ern) Salem/Winston-Salem as his place of birth.
  • Sgt. Johnson was born between 1888 and 1897. Such a range may sound strange to 21st-century ears, but accuracy and consistency in dates is a relatively recent development (initiating mainly in the late 1930s with the launch of Social Security, which required specifics for registration), as is our emphasis on birthdays. In all likelihood, the soldier did not know his own date of birth, and his lack of certainty is reflected in his paper trail, though he mostly claimed March 15 or May 15 of various years.
  • Sgt. Johnson died on July 1, 1929, in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Assertions that he died elsewhere (such as New York or Illinois) or on other dates are probably due to confusion with records of soldiers with similar names.

More remains to be corrected, but clarifying his name, as well as shedding light on the dates and places of his birth and death, seems a modest and fitting Memorial Day tribute.

*While it is customary in award situations to use the rank of the soldier at the time of the relevant incident, I have opted to refer to Henry Johnson by his highest attained rank.

**He may have been confused with Henry Lincoln Johnson, another World War I veteran.

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April 2015 Seton Shields Genealogy Grant

Raritan Valley Slavic Cultural and Heritage Society of New Jersey is an organization I've long admired. With a small group of volunteers, they publish an excellent newsletter and orchestrate a number of interesting events that cater to all Slavs – Belarusans, Bohemians, Bulgarians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Cossacks, Croats, Czechs, Lemkos, Lusatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Moravians, Poles, Rusnaks, Russians, Ruthenians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Sorbs, Wends, and Ukrainians. Phew! I like this inclusive approach and the fact that they share personal recollections, recipes, folk tales, books, traditions – you name it. I often learn about my own ancestral traditions by reading their newsletter, and am delighted to select them for this grant.

To apply for a Seton Shields grant, fill out and submit the form here. You can see examples of past grant awards here.

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March 2015 Seton Shields Genealogy Grant

Photo Credit: This photograph by Ard G. Emery is used with the kind permission of the Huron Shores Genealogical Society.

The Huron Shores Genealogical Society has a room at the Robert Parks Library in Oscoda, MI which houses a vast collection of resources and where Society volunteers aid visitors in personal family history quests. The grant will assist with costs associated with a new Society initiative, "A Legacy on Glass" traveling exhibit. This exhibit will explore the photography of Ard G. Emery between 1892-1904, as well as sharing the technological barriers Mr. Emery had to overcome to create his photos of life in the farms, cities, and landscapes of Iosco County, MI. Personal stories behind various photos, which were unearthed in the course of research, will also be shared.

To apply for a Seton Shields grant, fill out and submit the form here. You can see examples of past grant awards here.

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Genealogy Round Up, May 20

WWI heroes Johnson, Shemin to receive Medal of Honor – Long overdue honors. Proud to have researched both of these cases.

WWII evacuee who never saw his parents again after being sent away aged five discovers family he never knew existed

2 Women Moved to Write Stories Uncover a Surprisingly Personal One

Couple return to Derby from Australia and get long-lost brother surprise at their 60th wedding anniversary party

Gateway to America: 11 Celebrities Whose Family Members Arrived at Ellis Island

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Genealogy Round Up, April 29

Ancestry expert traces Hillary's roots to impoverished mining family from tiny parish in the Welsh Valleys.

Are the names adorning your family tree really your ancestors or just crowd-sourced fiction?

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Genealogy Round Up, April 22

In Iowa, Hillary Clinton claims 'all my grandparents' came to the U.S. from foreign countries – Well, it's campaign season, so genealogy is back in the news. This time it's Hillary Clinton. Who knew when I wrote that article for Irish America Magazine (pages 50-52 of http://issuu.com/irishamerica/docs/ia.april_may_2015) what would come of it? My research has since been cited in the South Wales Evening Post and The Times of London.

VIDEO: Bill Paxton Learns of His Revolutionary Past on 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

Melissa Etheridge's French Canadian British American Spanish Ancestor #WDYTYA

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Genealogy Round Up, April 15

Key & Peele: Ancestry.com – Oh, I have been waiting for the inevitable spoofs . . . and here we go! (warning: language)

Delighted to be included in "Modern Genealogy" article by Ben Swenson of Colonial Williamsburg!

Genealogist helps Lackawanna County find next of kin for unclaimed dead – Nice article by Kyle Wind of the Scranton Times-Tribune about my "unclaimed persons" work (i.e., forensic genealogy) with Lackawanna County, PA over the past decade. They were the first county I ever helped out! Can't believe it's been a decade!

Illinois Ancestors: Well-known genealogist stepping down

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Upcoming Events

After traveling around and speaking in 40 states and half a dozen countries since 2000, I decided to take a breather from the road to tend to some projects. That said, I'm sharing exceptions here. And by the way, you can see if I’ll be in your area any time by checking my Events Calendar.

  • July 20, 2015 - Kramer Levin - "Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing" - Private Event

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