RootsTech Recap, 2016 – Part 1

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m finally back home in New York City.  I had an incredible time at the RootsTech conference and figured it might be nice to recap the week a bit.  This post will be part 1, covering everything up through Thursday night, and later this week I’ll post the second installment.

In snowy #SLC for my favorite week of the year! #RootsTech2016

A photo posted by Michael Cassara (@michaelcassara) on

I spent Monday at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  One of the perks of RootsTech taking place in SLC is that it allows all of the visiting genealogists to spend some time doing research at the world-renowned FHL.  After a full day of searching my paternal Cassarà line in Mistretta, Sicily, I boarded the Frontrunner train to Provo where I managed to grab dinner with Brooke Schreier Ganz and Tammy Hepps, two of the most remarkable genealogical minds I’ve encountered.

Tammy’s site/story-sharing platform,, was such a terrific addition to the community when it won the RootsTech Developer Challenge in 2013, but I was particularly intrigued to learn of the in-depth research (and reporting) she’s doing on her site, Homestead Hebrews, chronicling the Jewish community of Homestead, Pennsylvania.  The site is a stellar example of how contemporary technology can bring records, pictures, stories and memories to life, in a vivid and remarkable manner.

ReclaimTheRecordsIn recent months, Brooke has turned the genealogical community on its head and, if you’re not already following the progress of her organization, Reclaim The Records, then you are missing out in a major way.  Reclaim The Records is *successfully* filing Freedom of Information Act requests, liberating data from state agencies, and making it available on a large-scale.  I can’t wait to see what they go after next  and I know I speak for many when I express my immense gratitude for the outstanding work they are doing.

Wednesday night brought two group dinners at …The Olive Garden.  The first was a small gathering for members of The Guild of One-Name Studies, organized by our chairman, Paul Howes.  The 7 of us in attendance are overseeing surname studies on these unique surnames: Boddie (Drew Smith of the Genealogy Guys Podcast), Colt/Coult (FamilySearch’s Darris Williams), Cuono (studied by yours truly), Howes, Keough (studied by Tessa Keough, whose contributions to the Guild’s first-ever booth at RootsTech were beyond invaluable), Pikholz (studied by Jerusalem-based Israel Pickholtz, whose book is on my must-read list) and Stoops (studied by Yolanda Campbell Lifter, who focuses on research in my native Ohio).  We discussed our studies and enjoyed each other’s company, along with, perhaps, a few too-many breadsticks.

#NextGen Genealogy Network Dinner
#NextGen Genealogy Network Dinner

As the GOONS (as those of us in the Guild are sometimes known) dinner concluded, I headed to another part of the restaurant for the tail-end of the NextGen Genealogy Network dinner.  I was happy to see some familiar faces, and also to meet some new folks.  NextGen was founded in 2013 to “create a community for other young genealogists”.  I have to say, given how solitary an activity doing genealogical research can be, it’s always really wonderful to meet and connect with other like-minded researchers.

Following the good conversation and carb-loading, I turned in for the night – eagerly anticipating Thursday morning’s keynotes and kick-offs.  Eastman’s Online Genealogy Blog has a terrific recap of Thursday’s RootsTech keynotes and other activities – and numerous videos, including the keynote addresses, have been uploaded to, with more to follow soon.  The Ancestry Insider also has a great post on Steve Rockwood’s keynote, along with some exciting statistics on this year’s RootsTech attendees.

On Thursday morning I attended my first session, “Free At Last: Irish Records, So Peculiar, So Cheap”, presented by John Grenham (who literally wrote the book on the subject) and he captivated the packed room as he discussed the foundations of Irish research, and the latest and greatest in available records.

As this was the first year that the Guild of One-Name Studies had a booth at RootsTech, attending members of the Guild were called upon to volunteer when available.  Though I’ve attended every RootsTech since 2012, I’ve never gotten to wear the “exhibitor” hat and I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with people one-on-one and tell them more about the Guild.  It was an extremely successful outing and I believe that many dozens of one-name studies will be registered as a result of our presence and the pro-active nature of our members and participants.  After my shift, I headed over to see the aforementioned Tammy Hepps speak on “The Ancestor Deep Dive”, and she wowed the audience with her approach to research methodology and case-study examples from her site.  I finished the day listening to Geoff Rasmussen speak about the new Google Photos, and how he’s been using it for his own photo collections.  Although definitive photo organization remains a constant struggle and challenge, I always enjoy hearing Geoff’s thoughts on the matter and, though it’s a few years old at this point, his book Digital Imaging Essentials is a must-read for anyone concerned with preserving and organizing their photo collection.

I’ll post a recap for Friday and Saturday later this week, but – suffice it to say – I think this was my favorite RootsTech so far – the conference just keeps getting better and better.  As I head back into the real world, this week, I’m extremely grateful to have had the chance to see my genealogy friends, make some new ones, learn some new things, share a bit, and spend some precious time on my own research.

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RootsTech 2016!

RootsTech 2015
Michael Cassara, at RootsTech 2015

The blog has been on a bit of hiatus in recent months.  In addition to “real world” obligations, I also recently completed the Certificate Program in Genealogical Research at Boston University.  While I’ll be writing more about that in coming weeks, suffice it to say, I’m very glad I was able to undertake the advanced study with such a wonderful group of instructors and fellow students.  As you may notice, the site has a brand new look – and I’ll be adding a lot of new content in coming weeks and months.

I’m writing this from Salt Lake City where, in a matter of minutes, #RootsTech2016 will be underway!  I’ve attended every year since the 2nd conference in 2012, and I’m very pleased to be presenting for the third time as well.  This Saturday, February 6th, I’ll be speaking on the topic of “Cemetery Crowdsourcing” in Ballroom J from 1:30 PM t 2:30 PM.  Please come by, introduce yourselves, say hello – the presentation is open to genealogists and enthusiasts of all levels, and I’m including some stories and information that will hopefully appeal to all attendees.

Beyond that, I’ll be spending much of the conference at the stand of the Guild of One-Name Studies.  I registered the surname Cuono with the Guild in 2013, and am actively trying to increase Italian surname participation, as the Guild seeks to shatter the notion that one-name studies are only for those from the British Isles.  Wherever your surnames may have originated, come visit us at the booth and learn a bit more about this outstanding organization!

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It’s Christmas in July! Ancestry releases Social Security Applications and Claims Index

Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, the cheerful elves over at have really outdone themselves with their latest collection release, and genealogists worldwide are eagerly searching for discoveries under the proverbial tree. Ancestry has just released “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007“, and the genealogical blogosphere is buzzing.

Social Security records have long been an invaluable resource for genealogists doing American research, but – until this week – our best resource had always been the (constantly updated) Social Security Death Index (SSDI).  The SSDI does not list parents names or much beyond basic dates and places.  While it is possible to order an SS-5 (the original Social Security application) and gain more information (parents names and more specific places/addresses), this can be a costly process (at $27 a pop) and, in recent years, parent information has been redacted if the subject is less than 120 years old.

This new index, however, is AMAZING.  In the course of the last hour I have been astounded at the amount of information I have found – proving hypotheses and generating new leads.  Additionally, the search capabilities allow one to search for the parents – so you might find a mother’s maiden name listed, offering a child you never existed.  The possibilities are endless.

Our friend Lisa Louise Cooke has offered a great example of how this index will provide a LOT more information than its SSDI counterpart.  Of course, remember that these are transcripts and there will be errors and misspellings but, so far, I’ve found this index to be both accurate and invaluable – and a great jumping-off point for continued research.

Let us know what you discover!

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Michael on Genealogy Gems, at #RootsTech

I’ve been trying to find the time to blog since #RootsTech and, unfortunately, work and life commitments have been plentiful of late. But it was a tremendous conference, my third (out of the four they’ve held) and the greatest one to date, by far!

On top of that, I was honored to have been chosen to speak – offering a seminar I entitled “Putting Things In Their Place: Paying it forward in the digital age.”  Lisa Louise Cooke, of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, was kind enough to interview me, and the video has now been posted on her YouTube channel.

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My (genealogical) New Year’s resolution

On New Year’s Eve (day), I was visiting with a friend when the topic of New Year’s resolutions came up.  I asked if she had any and, with quick certainty, she said “oh, no, I never make mine until a week into the new year.  It helps me really focus on what I’d like to accomplish – and it helps me keep them in the long-term.”  While I always enjoy the fresh start (and adrenaline rush) a new year can bring – I really liked her more methodical approach… which has led me to the question: what is my genealogical resolution for 2014?

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Wishing Dick Eastman a speedy recovery

Many of us in the genealogical community wake up every morning and eagerly jump into the latest edition of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (EOGN), the daily newsletter put together by the wonderful Dick Eastman. Dick is presently recovering from a perforated appendix and, on behalf of everyone in the community, I want to wish him a very speedy recovery.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the group dinners put together by Dick on the closing night of RootsTech for the last two years and he’s a fantastic guy – very much the embodiment of his beloved (and prolific) web presence.

Get well soon, Dick!

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Starting to get SUPER excited for RootsTech 2013, which will be taking place from March 21st to 23rd in Salt Lake City.  I attended for the first time last year and was absolutely overwhelmed to be in the presence of so many genealogical technologists.  It sounds like this year will have even more attendees, exhibits and workshops.

Hoping to meet some of you there, my small-but-growing readership!  And for those of you who can’t make it, I will definitely be blogging and “live-blogging” certain elements of the conference.

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Welcome, all!

Hi everyone.  A number of you have stumbled upon my site via GeneaBloggers – and we thank them tremendously for our inclusion.

Still very much working out the kinks and getting ready to “officially” launch in the next week or so, but for now, there are a few entries below.  Please “like” us on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and keep checking back – many new things will be added soon.  Thanks for your support and interest – looking forward to what’s next!

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M. M. O’Rourke, leverman.

Michael Matthew O'Rourke, with my mother. 1954.
Michael Matthew O’Rourke, with his granddaughter, my mother. 1954.

My great-grandfather, Michael Matthew O’Rourke, was a railroad man.  Family lore always indicated that he worked for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad – commuting from his home in Paterson, New Jersey to Jersey City and other points along the way, but by the time I got around to asking my relatives for more details, not much was known or remembered about the actual specifics.

Over the years, I had frequently read articles in genealogical magazines about the Railroad Retirement Board, and how its records were a valuable resource for those looking to find out more about their railroad employee ancestors – but my search was always halted as my great-grandfather does not appear in the Social Security Death Index (railroad workers were issued SSNs starting with 700-728 and, to my knowledge, their information generally does not appear in the SSDI) and in order to obtain records from the RRB, one must have the deceased’s SSN.

Michael O'Rourke - 1As luck would have it, during Christmas, 2012, I was home in Cleveland and discovered a loose sheet of paper among some family photos.  I’m still not positive as to what it may have been – maybe some kind of pay-stub (perhaps one of you in the blogosphere will have a better idea) but staring right at me was my great-grandfather’s Social Security Number.

When I arrived back in New York, armed with this new information, I visited the Railroad Retirement Board’s website and immediately wrote them a letter.  Within only a few days I received a letter back, indicating that records do exist – but they’ve been transferred to the southern region of the National Archives, and that I should contact them for further information.  The process was quite simple and efficient – I sent them an e-mail with the specific details, and they located the file (presumably on microfilm) and told me that there was 81 pages – and the charge for copies would be $64.80.  I opted to pay over the phone with a credit card, and within a week a large package arrived containing just about everything in existence about Michael O’Rourke’s railroad career. I’ve spent some time reviewing the file now and it contained some interesting, though not (yet) revelatory, details.  I learned that great-grandpa was a leverman – and a quick google search reveals this about that position:

Employees who operated an interlocking machine were designated as leverman. These employees were also subject to theBook of Rules and the hours of service law. At busy interlockings (such as at urban terminals), occasionally an additional leverman helper position would be created during busy periods.

Some other interesting tidbits popped up.  For instance, my great-grandmother filled out a great deal of paperwork as the wife of a railroad employee, in order to receive her annuity, in addition to his.  In her application, I found that she lists her father’s name as William Joseph Hancock.  I had never seen the Joseph on previous documents.  Maybe it’ll come in handy, some day – you never know! Hancock, William Joseph   Additionally, it seems the Railroad Board required official vital record documents to prove age, marriage length, etc. – so the documents that were sent to me include copies of death certificates for both my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather, and also their marriage certificate and extracts from church-issued baptismal certificates (used to prove age, I would imagine.)

Michael O'Rourke with railroad men
My great-grandfather, standing on the right, working on the railroad.

While this particular file doesn’t seem to have introduced much new information into my research, I’m grateful to have it.  And – as all branches of my family are (comparatively) recent immigrants to the United States (the earliest any of my ancestors came here was 1854 – after that, it wouldn’t be until 1882, then 1907, with the most recent immigration occurring in 1950) it gives me a particular pride to know that records on my relatives are being stored in the National Archives. If a railroad employee exists in your lineage, I encourage you to see what might be out there – who knows what you may find!

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Easter Serendipity

It was April 4th, 2010.  Easter Sunday.  I felt something in my gut that morning and, against all odds, my life changed in the blink of an eye.

Cassara, Sam, Rose and Michael
Michael and his paternal grandparents, 1981

I’ve been fascinated with family history research since I was very young.  My parents moved to Cleveland right before I was born and all of our extended family remained further east, in upstate NY and NJ.  I grew fascinated by the notion of these other people who lived in mythical, far-off places with names like “Bergen County”.  Genealogical research seemed to be a way to get to know them a bit.

As I grew up, my theatre career took me right back to the east coast and, when I moved to New York in 2002, my first apartment was in Sunnyside, Queens.  After giving Brooklyn and Manhattan a try, the end of 2009 found me moving back to Sunnyside.

The beginning of 2010 was a rough stretch for me: a relationship had just ended, I was working very long hours, and I generally found myself in the middle of a major transition period.  So Easter Sunday appeared out of nowhere and I relished in the rare opportunity to have a day without obligations, to just do whatever struck my fancy.

It turned out to be the first really nice weather day of the year – the sun was out and I just had to get out of my apartment, so I walked myself over to a neighborhood diner and ordered some breakfast.  As I was sitting there, reflecting, my mind went to an unexpected place: I started thinking about the massive cemetery that I had passed a few times while walking around the neighborhood, but had never taken the time to explore.   I remembered a website called Find A Grave.  I had explored it a bit, but was curious to learn more – and to possibly contribute to its volunteer-driven database.  It seemed like the perfect day for some exploring.

Find A Grave is a website that has existed since the mid-90s.  The idea is, quite simply, to index and record information for all of the world’s cemeteries. It is a constantly-growing, user-driven compilation of information. Whereas gravesite information was previously only available by contacting the cemetery office (and, even that assumes you know in WHICH cemetery your ancestor is buried) with this website, members of the community-at-large can pool their resources and knowledge for the better good – creating a stronger, searchable resource for everyone.

With thousands of volunteers throughout the globe, Find A Grave contributors help each other with content requests. Let’s say you have an ancestor who is buried in California, but you live 3,000 miles away in New York. You can post the information relevant to that ancestor’s gravesite and a kind, local stranger will eventually dispatch themselves to photograph the headstone so that you may see it and have a record of any genealogical information it may contain. For instance, knowing that my mom’s father is buried in Mahwah, NJ at Maryrest Cemetery – I recently found that a volunteer (who has no relationship to our family) had actually already photographed his headstone. You might see if any of your relatives are on the site – with over 93 million records, the odds are increasingly good.

Anyway, I left the house to explore Calvary Cemetery – a gigantic cemetery for which there’s an entrance on 52nd Street and Queens Boulevard – in Woodside Queens. Armed with my camera, I proceeded to try and make sense out of the cemetery map that I had found online. The whole place seemed to be unending and gigantic, and – though I’m not usually overwhelmed by things like this – it was a bit overwhelming. As I entered the cemetery grounds I walked for at least an hour – taking photographs of random headstones here and there, and mostly just enjoying being around grass and trees within such a peaceful setting.


I brought two requests from the website with me – hoping that I would be able to fulfill some far-away genealogist’s photo requests and at least make a fleeting deposit into the karma bank for the day.  The first gravesite took quite a hike, but once I got to the correct section of the cemetery, the grave was nowhere to be found. I looked all through the corresponding area, but still no dice. Perhaps it was written down wrong, or perhaps it’s a grave without a headstone. Either way, I was 0 for 1, and thought I might have better luck on the second task I had brought with me – so I proceeded to walk towards the other end of the cemetery, in search of Clementina and Gesuele Sica, a photograph of their headstone was being sought by a woman named Debbie. I saw that she had taken volunteer photographs for others on Find A Grave, and felt the least I could do would be to try and help her out.

I made my way over to Section 43, and excitedly located the grave for Clementina and Gesuele Sica. I took some photographs from different angles – careful to capture all the information – but also paying attention to things like the angle of the sun, shadows, etc. Feeling as if I accomplished something, and aware that I had now been in the cemetery for almost two hours, I decided to head back home – though, admittedly, I was guessing a bit as to the direction in which I should walk.

Having left no breadcrumbs for myself, I decided to trust my gut and see where it took me.
I walked for a half-minute away from the Sica grave, and was still taking in many of the other headstones. Throughout the day, I would see familiar surnames and wonder if they were ancestors of my friends, or people with whom I went to college – and I pondered that, in fact, the likelihood was imminent that many of the graves I was passing were, in some way, connected to me. I found myself wondering if any of my relatives – distant or otherwise – might have made their way here, as a final resting place. But no amount of peaceful pondering could have prepared me for what happened next.

For a moment, my heart stopped altogether.

I was staring at my great-grandfather’s grave.


Of my eight great grandparents, he’s the only one for whom I was never able to find a cemetery location.  But there I was – shaking and awestruck – face to face with the headstone of my great-grandfather. Without his courage, our family would not be residing on this continent, let alone even be in existence. He led a hard life, with the hope that mine wouldn’t be as hard. And here he was, where he’d been for the last 60 years: 9 blocks from my apartment.

I had a feeling that morning that going to the cemetery and photographing headstones was how I was supposed to spend my day. But this photo doesn’t do the place justice. It is massive. There are over three MILLION people buried in the four areas of the cemetery. I happened to go in search of a grave that was in the same ROW as my great-grandfather – the only ancestor I have who was even remotely likely to be buried here. But, even though I realized that Calvary was a main destination for Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants to New York City, given overcrowded Manhattan’s lack of cemetery space, it never once crossed my mind that he could be buried there – and yet, there he was. There he is. Less than a minute’s walk from the headstone that I volunteered to photograph for a stranger from the internet.

Antonino Cassara

Antonino Cassara first came to the United States from his hometown of Mistretta, Sicilia, in 1907. By the beginning of the 1920′s, he was living in the coal-mining town of Mildred, Pennsylvania – with his wife Petrina (nee Lupica) and their ever-growing family – including their sons Joseph, Michael, John, and my grandfather, Salvatore Joseph – but everyone called him Sam.

I knew Papa Sam well. He was a constant figure in my childhood. A couple of years before he died, I spent the summer with him and my grandmother in Cassara, Anthony - Funeral Card - BackRochester, NY. At my prolonged nagging, we finally took a trip to the cemetery where his mother was buried. Grandpa told me he hadn’t been there since she was buried – it had been almost 40 years. It’s the only time I ever remember him crying. He said “thank you for bringing me here”, we paid our respects, and we left. To this day, it’s one of the most vivid memories involving my family that I have. That was the day that my budding fascination with genealogy became less about names and places and facts and more about trying to understand the lives of those who have come before us. It became an intensely personal thing, and no longer a faceless attempt at gathering data.

It’s almost been three years since that fateful day – and my passion for genealogical research is stronger now than it’s ever been.  Since that first visit, I’ve spent countless hours in Calvary Cemetery and – while nothing has ever topped that remarkable experience – I’ve taken volunteer photographs for hundreds of researchers throughout the world.  I’ve become a major contributor to the BillionGraves project and as of this moment have helped to add over 30,000 records to their ever-expanding collection.

If I ever had any doubt, I learned to listen to my gut.  I learned that serendipity exists.  And I learned that, by honoring our past, we can shape our future.


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