Judy Russell is well-known in genealogical circles by name as well as by her trademark, “The Legal Genealogist," which reflects her training and education as a genealogist with a law degree. In her popular blog by the same name and in classes she frequently teaches, she is known for her understanding and clear explanations on finding, reading, and interpreting records of all kinds. She knows why legal documents were set up, where to look for them, what information they contain, and what parts of that information are reliable.
“Essentially everything I have done has come together in what I am doing now,” she said. With an undergraduate degree in journalism from George Washington University, Judy’s first career was as a newspaper reporter for a small newspaper in New Jersey and then for the New York Daily News. From there she transitioned into law. Both were rewarding careers.
When she retired, she could pursue an interest in family history. While many must leave training and expertise behind when they embark on genealogy, her understanding of the legal system was useful for genealogical research.
Story Telling Memories
Judy developed her interest in family history as a youth listening to the stories her mother’s Scots-Irish family told.
“They are storytellers,” she said. “In addition to being storytellers, they never let the truth get in the way of a good story. At some point, you have this nagging sense that it would be nice to know if any of those stories are true. You have to get into the nitty gritty to find out about it.”
Judy was born in Colorado but grew up in New Jersey. Summers included trips with extended family to her grandparents’ farm in Virginia. Her mother was 1 of 12 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. “We spent the whole summer with 9,000 cousins—it certainly seemed like that many,” she said. As the adults gathered around a firepit near the family home in the evening and shared stories, she and other older cousins sat quietly just outside the ring of firelight to listen. “This is probably my best memory, sitting there as a kid mesmerized by the stories. They were always funny, always exaggerated, and some of them turned out to have a spark of truth in them,” she said.
School field trips to Revolutionary War and other early American sites added more interest. At first, “these trips were just a day out of class—until the day I discovered that my 4th great grandfather was at the battle of Trenton. That his younger brother died at the battle of Trenton. And that that 4th great grandfather and another 4th great grandfather spent that terrible winter at Valley Forge with Washington. All of a sudden, it stopped being meaningless history and started being my history.
“I got serious about family history when my oldest cousins’ husband died. In my mind’s eye, I could see all these young dark-haired vibrant people by the fire when, in reality, they were then these white-haired frail older folks, and I realized that we were losing those older people. They were remaining aunts and uncles. It became now or never,” she explained.
Because of her sense of connection to her mother’s extended family and their stories, it was natural to first gather their history. She found surprises along the way. Her mother had written in her sister’s baby book that her own mother’s grandparents (Judy’s second great-grandparents) were born in Ireland and Wales. If so, they would have come to the US just after the Civil War. “With that background in mind, it never occurred to me that I was going to have to deal with slavery,” Russell noted. Nevertheless, after considerable research she discovered that her second great grandparents may have been Irish and Welsh, but they were born to slaveholding families in small towns in Mississippi, and that the family line in the United States extended to the Colonial Period.
After retiring, Judy attended genealogical seminars. She took a class from Loretto D. “Lou” Szucs, then a Vice President of Ancestry and a specialist on Chicago research where Judy’s father’s family ended up. “Lou is simply a brilliant speaker who obviously knows her subject, but, far more importantly, makes you care about it and doing it right. She showed me how to do it and do it right,” Judy said.
As she became more involved, she developed a sense that with her experience in teaching at Rutgers, she should teach genealogy. Many of the most reliable records commonly used in genealogy have a legal basis, so things others in genealogy were struggling with, she understood far more easily due to her legal background. That was the origin of The Legal Genealogist. “Because of all the things people had given me in terms of their time, and their energy and their mentoring in genealogy I saw teaching as an area where I could give back.
“A lot of people have to leave training and expertise behind [when they embark on genealogy,] but the only thing I had to learn to leave behind, or to modify, was citations, because they are so different between law and genealogy,” she said.
Finding connections to our pasts creates connection and a sense of wonder. Judy felt it as she discovered her connection to the Revolutionary War. She says she sees that joy of connection and wonder all the time among genealogists.
As The Legal Genealogist, Judy does research and shares her wealth of information with others. And as they learn and discover family connections, they can also share that sense of wonder.
You can learn from Judy Russell by visiting her website, and even submit questions for The Legal Genealogist to answer in her blog. Judy is also a frequent speaker at RootsTech, the largest Genealogy conference in the world. You can find online RootsTech sessions from Judy here: