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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part B

By Daniel Hubbard | December 14, 2014

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book with one letter per page that starts out—

A is for ant, watch it scurry.

B is for bunny, soft and furry.

Oddly enough, it got me thinking about what an alphabet book for genealogists might look like. I’ve already taken a stab at “A.” So, for genealogists what might “B” be for?

B is for Boundary

“B” could be for “boundary,” the division between one area and another. People tend to think of them as static and “set in stone” but they are created, moved and erased over time. The boundaries in which your ancestors lived may be long gone and the records that were created within those archaic boundaries may be in unexpected places.

“B” could be for “bounty land,” given to former soldiers as a reward for their service. If an ancestor was awarded bounty land, that award might have launched him and his family on a long migration.

“B” might be for “Black’s Law Dictionary,” early editions are very handy for understanding obscure wording in old documents.

“B” could stand for “bond,” a a document that might be related to many events, marriage and the assumption of guardianship, for example.

“B” might be for “birth,” “baptism,” or “burial” records of those three events are some of the most important in genealogy.

Those are all fine words, but, given how genealogists are always searching for evidence of relationships, a genealogists’ alphabet has to have “b is for brother.”

 

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Meaning and Intent

By Daniel Hubbard | December 7, 2014

Genealogists deal with information—gathering, analyzing, transmitting and preserving. Often that information isn’t in an easy to use form. Maybe it’s in a foreign language written in Gothic script. The ink has faded. The words are abbreviated and just for fun let’s say it uses an outdated calendar and archaic place names. The meaning you give to that document will depend on many things.

Relativity

How are you connected to the document? Is it a will that lists your ancestor as an heir or a witness? Is the date on the document later than any other evidence that you have about that ancestor? Then a meaning you can assign to it, is that your ancestor’s death date was after the date on the will. You can also conclude that your ancestor knew the author of the will. If your ancestor was the author of the will your connection will be very different. Your ancestor died between the date of writing and the date of probate. You might read about many people who knew your ancestor and get at least some idea of your ancestors possessions. The meaning you give to a document depends on how it fits into your research.

Knowledge

The meaning you assign to a document depends on what you know or what you think you know. Maybe you understand how the document connects to your ancestor but only later do you manage to read a particularly difficult passage, or learn where a certain place was, or that another person mentioned in the document was a relative. Suddenly the meaning you assign that document can change dramatically. What the document means to you depends on what you know.

Ability

The meaning you give to a document will also depend on your abilities. Can you read the language well enough to do more than pulling out what looks like a birth date? Are you able to interpret a document’s archaic language? Even if the answers to those questions are both “yes” right now, were they “yes” when you decided what the document means or have things changed. Would you be able to assign new meaning now with some improved ability?

Intent

Normally we don’t think about a document’s meaning changing. The document was created with a specific intent and that can’t change after its creation. We assume that the intent is the same as the meaning but the intent is only what the document meant to the person who created it at the time it was created. What that document means to us, different people at different times and in different places, is, not surprisingly, different. If we stick to only drawing conclusions from a document that match the original intent, then we may be missing some very important things.

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The Mind’s Eye

By Daniel Hubbard | December 1, 2014

My family and I took a trip over the long Thanksgiving weekend to visit friends. Nothing unusual about that. As  often happens when we travel somewhere, I realized that we have a family connection to the area. The connection was made by a family that I seem to be following. We’ve visited them in Illinois, in Wisconsin, and in Minnesota. Now it was Missouri’s turn.

The Missouri River from the site of Fort Belle Fontaine

The Missouri River from the site of Fort Belle Fontaine, but it isn’t what it seems.

In 1819 a pair of my great-great-great-grandparents, Daniel and Catherine, spent a month near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers at Fort Belle Fontaine. They were part of the Yellowstone Expedition and the weeks that they spent at Belle Fontaine were filled with frustration as they waited to be able to retrace the route Lewis and Clark had taken a decade and a half earlier. To make matters worse, Catherine was nearing the end of her first pregnancy and the delay in their departure was due to the failure of their transports to arrive. At eight months pregnant, she would have to join the soldiers on the march, not floating on the river.

Given the chance to see the place where they had spent July of 1819, I had to see it. Yet I have to ask if I have seen it. I stood high on the bluff that overlooks the Missouri but the massive stone structures, which still stand on the spot, were built in the 1930s not the 1810s. Of course, I could look out over the river that they saw and that defined their route. Yet I couldn’t really do that either. A sign at the spot where the fort had once stood explained that the river had shifted over the last two centuries and had been much further away in the early 1800s. The bluff and the flood plain below were roughly what they had been but the river itself was not the sight they had once seen.

I love to go on pilgrimages to the places where my ancestors had once been. There is something moving about standing in those spots. In a very real way it can be helpful to see the places that they once saw. It helps in understanding them. Sometimes the best we can do is to imagine those places, but we get the chance to correct our mind’s eye with our actual eyes when we visit their places. Nevertheless, it strikes me over and over that though we can travel to the place, we can’t travel to the time without at least some help from our mind’s eye. While standing on that bluff, I had to imagine different buildings overlooking a different river. I had to imagine the noise and the smells of hundreds of soldiers, some of them “locals” in the garrison and some who had just traveled over a thousand miles and who had many hundred’s more to go. I had to remember what my research has told me about that place in their time. I had to be both there and somewhere else.

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Questions: Personal and Universal

By Daniel Hubbard | November 23, 2014

Last week I wrote about the Swedish genealogy event where I was one of the researchers. I’ve also been making a lot of presentations lately and one of the best things about being a speaker is talking with people individually before and after presenting for the group. This week I thought I would let some of those people and others that I’ve spoken with “do the talking.”

“My father was adopted. How can I find his biological family?”

“My grandmother told all kinds of stories. I wish I knew if they were true…”

“My mother collected all this family stuff. I wasn’t interested at the time and now I’m slowly trying to understand what it is.”

“Do you read German? I think this might be the baptism of my great-great-grandmother.”

“I think something like what you mentioned happened with my grandfather. There were certain subjects he just never talked about.”

“My grandparents were all immigrants and I’d love to find out where they came from.”

“We always thought that grandma was really straight laced. Then I found this in her hometown newspaper…”

“Can you make out this handwriting? I can’t tell if it is the right family.”

“Do you think what I’ve told you about my great-grandfather is enough to get started?”

“I’ve found these three men in the census. What should I do to try to figure out which one is my ancestor?”

“I’ve hit a brick wall on my mother’s mother’s side. Do you think that this land record is enough to prove the relationship?”

“Do you have a moment? I don’t really like to talk about this but…”

That is just a small sample. The questions and stories become almost a sort of collective poetry, both deeply personal and broadly universal. Some are funny, many are moving, all have meaning. They are the things genealogists ponder and that draw us to family history.

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Genealogical Speed Dating

By Daniel Hubbard | November 16, 2014

Yesterday I provided research help at the annual Exploring Your Swedish Roots day at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. It means changing to a new research topic every half hour. Often a problem gets solved but sometimes, a mystery lingers. It can, perhaps, be visualized as genealogical speed dating.

One mystery was the man who was recorded leaving Sweden at the right time. He had the right name and the right date of birth. Yet he was still being recorded in Sweden a couple years later. I found him returning to his parents’ household from Denmark not long after leaving for America. Progress yes, but the mystery lingers.

Someone else had just learned her great-grandmother’s maiden name. It is a very Swedish name but rather unusual. It could have been the kind of name that leads to progress with minimal starting information but it turned out otherwise. She appeared twice in the U.S. census after marrying. We could not find her before that despite an unusual name an approximate age and even knowing places she might have lived. No records of emigrants from Sweden or immigrants to America matched her. In the census she claimed to be from the place she first lived when she came to America and the few records of her showed that she was aging at 6 or 7 years per decade. We were left wondering what was fact and what was fiction.

Other times, I was rewarded with exclamations like, “Oh my, that’s Aunt Viola, Uncle Karl and Aunt Greta and there’s my grandfather over there! Wait is that his birth date?!?” or “Wow, I didn’t know anything about these people who never left Sweden! This is great.” Sometimes I could even explain that, from the wording and the structure of the record, it was likely that the widow listed at the bottom of the page was great-grandma or that the cluster of people listed at the top of the page were an ancestor’s siblings. Many a speed date found those kinds of matches.

Maybe you can try to speed date some people from your past. You might be able to take a name you’ve never researched and find some matching records and either decide that they might be interesting to get to know or decide that they really aren’t for you. Just remember, when your speed date is over, you’ll need contact information. Save those documents and the citation info. You’ll want to have those if the date was a success.

Speed dating may not be the ideal form for carrying on a long-term relationship but it isn’t meant to be. It is meant as a start. My day of genealogical speed dating isn’t the way that the people with whom I worked should continue their genealogy. They will need to slow down and take notes, record thoughts, cite sources, make entries into databases and file their documents. A successful speed date, genealogical or otherwise, is only the start.

 

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What Time Was It? Surprise!

By Daniel Hubbard | November 9, 2014

The bombers were enormous. They left their bases in Germany and set their courses for London. As they advanced toward the the British coast by night, operators stood ready at their dishes, waiting to detect their approach and call out the fighters. The early raids proved unstoppable but eventually the British pilots learned to bring the bombers down in balls of flame. The threat faded.

What time was being described in the paragraph above? The Battle of Britain was fought in 1940 but it wasn’t 1940. It wasn’t even World War II.

The period was 1915-1918 and the bombers in question were not even airplanes. They were airships—Zeppelins. As long as two football fields and filled with flammable hydrogen they would seem like sitting ducks. Flying as high as 21,000 feet at speeds almost as great as the airplanes of the day and large enough that bullets made only insignificant holes in them, they made it through anyway.

The dishes that listened at the coast were not radar. That did not appear until World War II. They were “sound mirrors,” parabolic dishes made of concrete. The operators stood in front of them and used a listening horn at the end of a pole to listen for the sound of the approaching engines. Once they found the horn position that made the sound the loudest, the pole pointed to the Zeppelin. It was still too far away to be seen and could not be heard without the mirror but they knew it was coming and could phone the Zeppelin’s bearings to the the nearest airbase.

What is familiar can lead us astray when we don’t realize that history isn’t always what or when we expect. Whenever one researches anything, prepare for surprises!

If you are intrigued by the thought of enormous Zeppelins bombing Britain, you can watch this NOVA documentary.

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A Genealogist’s Halloween II

By Daniel Hubbard | November 2, 2014

This is year two of this story. If you didn’t read last year’s or if by some chance you’ve forgotten it, you should read the original Genealogists Halloween first.

Ring! Ring! (Actually a “Monster Mash” ringtone is heard)

“Hi Jenny, Are you almost ready?”

“Yep, I’ll be over in a minute. I just need to put some finishing touches on my costume.”

“What are you going to be this year?”

“I’m an unindexed, unalphabetized county history that isn’t even in chronological order.”

“Oh, yuck. Those are scary.”

“I just need to work a bit on my ridiculous and long-winded 19th century hyperbole. What do you think of this-

The ancestors of Patrick FitzFlabbergast, though they came to these shores from Ireland, were of Scots and Norman descent and go back into the deepest mists of time. Among his illustrious predecessors he can proudly count both King Duncan of Scotland and William the Conqueror. Those men and many other eminent ancestors must surely look down from on high with pride at their industrious progeny’s untiring commercial efforts in the swine and fertilizer trades.”

“I like it! But you should change Ireland to “that distant Emerald Isle.” Otherwise, it sounds like you’ve swallowed enough dictionaries.”

“I hope so. If I need to eat another page of the OED I won’t be able to move! I have a bit of Webster’s left over, but I think I’ll leave it on my desk. No wonder people in the 19th century were always dying of ‘stomach troubles.’ I’ll be over as soon as I change the Ireland part.”

“We’ll probably already be heading down the street but it should be easy to catch up. I can’t move very fast in my costume.”

“What are you?”

“I’m the 1890 census. I have to stop whenever the fake flames engulf me. At least my mom ordered my brother not to hose me down and water damage me, even if that would be authentic.”

“Ok, I’ll look for you in a few minutes.”

(Call ends.)

(A few minutes later.)

“Hi! Glad I caught up with you. Those flames make you easy to find. How is it going?”

“Alright. Crabby old Mr. Johnson looked at me and said that he had the 1890 census in his garage. Hah, Hah… So we played a trick on him.”

“What?”

“We filled his garage with the real 1890 census. Just don’t ask too many questions about where we got it. Let’s just say that somebody was owed a favor by the National Archives. I for one don’t want to wake up with a microfiche reader’s screen in my bunk bed…* Hah, Hah, just kidding. We put a dummy on his porch swing.”

“Have you gotten any good stuff?”

“I got a book called “Almond Family Wills” but I can’t keep it. I’m allergic to nuts. You want it?”

“Sure! Hey, where’s Billy? I thought we were going to try to get him into the old courthouse before it burns again.”

“His mom says he has to wait till he’s older. It’s too dangerous.”

“So what is he doing instead?”

“I think he’s going to investigate land records in neighboring counties for references to his death.”

“Oh No! We have to stop him! At midnight all the boundaries change. He could vanish into a gap in the records until next Halloween!”

The children gasp and scatter, heading toward different counties. Some stop along the way to ask at houses if anyone has seen a boy who looks like he could have been born in 1674 but is living according to online trees, but people just go pale and quickly close their doors.

Finally, as they approach a county boundary, they see his ghostly form by the light of the fake census flames. They make a mad dash and tackle him.

“Hey! I’m undead but you don’t need to kill me!”

Just then, as distant bells mark the stroke of midnight, the earth trembled and the the sign in front of them changed from “Welcome to Jefferson, The Happy, Well-documented County” to “Unattached territory! No records were kept and no one returns!” The children screamed and ran back to Billy’s house, pushing their book carts as fast as they could go.

Finally, safe at Billy’s, his mother consoles them with extra helpings of hot cider and quit claims, but poor, undead Billy will have to wait another year for his chance to remove the “Private- Living” label from his costume.

 


 

* Godfather reference. Too obscure?

 

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet

By Daniel Hubbard | October 26, 2014

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book with one letter per page that starts out—

A is for apple, red and tasty.

B is for butterfly, floating, never hasty.

Oddly enough, it got me thinking about what an alphabet book for genealogists might look like. So, for genealogists what might “A” be for?

A is for Authored

“A” could be for “authored,” a type of source created from research into earlier sources. It might be so well done that it is in many ways superior to the sources used to create it or it could be full of errors and lies with nary a source citation to be seen.

“A” could be for “abstract,” a summary of a record showing what the person who made it thought was important in the record. An abstract might be something you make for yourself, so that a difficult to find passage from a nearly illegible source is something that you can easily consult. Abstracts prepared by others can be very helpful but there is always the danger that the record was misread or that one person’s “unimportant” might be your “vital clue.”

“A” might be for “archive,” which genealogists might be excused for believing is a word derived from “ark”—a place of sanctuary, and “hive”—a location filled with busy activity.

“A” could stand for “affidavit,” a written statement affirmed under oath that just might tell us what someone saw or heard or did with details rarely found elsewhere.

“A” might be for “analysis.” Many records don’t directly give us the information that we seek. Instead we must analyze many sources to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes sources contradict each other and we must analyze them to determine the origin and meaning of the discrepancy. Sometimes the most fascinating details of someone’s life can only be discovered by analyzing sources that don’t actually give us the story.

Those are all fine words, but, clearly, a genealogists’ alphabet has to start with the word “ancestor.” They are, after all, the people that we seek.

 

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Macabre Beliefs

By Daniel Hubbard | October 19, 2014

I’m always fascinated by the beliefs of our ancestors. Sometimes people say that our ancestors were “just like us” and on other occasions we hear that, if we could travel back in time, they would seem totally different from us. Neither is true and yet both are true. Sometimes they will seem surprisingly modern and other times they will appear totally alien. It can even be a matter of our perspective. Do we look at the very recognizably human traits that led to an action or the result, which appears totally bizarre?

In researching New England families, including my own, I’ve run into accused, and even executed, witches. I’ve never run into accusations of vampirism and would have thought that serious accusations were not something that had really ever happened in the United States. Those were beliefs from Central Europe and the Balkans—from far away places and long, long ago times. I would have been wrong. I’ve learned something new, just in time for Halloween.

American Vampires

The old name for tuberculosis is “consumption.” The name is telling. Consumption seemed to consume its victims. They faded away—the life being slowly drained out of them. Because Tuberculosis causes its victims to cough up blood, it may have been the inspiration for the “red death” of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Blood, death, consumption and draining—it might have been inevitable that, at least in some isolated places, as tuberculosis spread from family member to family member and claimed more and more lives, blame for the affliction might fall on visits to a home by a vampire.

That New Englanders might hunt witches on occasion in the decades before the Enlightenment is common knowledge and as horrific as some of their handling of the accused was, we have come to at least accept that it happened. It is new to me that in isolated places, long after the Enlightenment, even after the cause of tuberculosis was discovered, Americans sometimes went hunting. Those who did the hunting may not have used the word, but outsiders who described the goings on, did not hesitate to use the term “vampire” for what was being hunted.

Sometimes bodies were clandestinely disinterred. As one reburial in Connecticut shows, their heads might be removed and their femurs used to create a skull and cross bones. The symbol of death was created from someone who was suspected of being alive even in the grave. The ribs of the man found that way, showed that he likely died of tuberculosis. In other instances, the ritual was quite public. After the exhumation, the heart of the accused might be brought to the village green or the blacksmith’s forge and publicly burned. In one case, locals, accompanied by a doctor and a newspaper reporter, opened the graves of three tuberculosis victims, found one body that was not sufficiently decomposed in their opinion (the death had occurred only two months before and it was January, but that explanation was not good enough.) They removed the girl’s heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water and gave the brew to her brother to drink, thinking that it would cure him of consumption. He died shortly thereafter. That happened…in America…in 1892.

When we research our ancestors, we need to remember that they were neither just like us nor an alien species. We can’t go into our research with the idea that our notions can guide us through their world. They clearly cannot. We can’t simply throw out everything we know about our world either. Part of the art of genealogy is to carefully apply what we know without taking it for granted and letting them guide us through their world, be it alien or familiar.

Though Consumption’s vampire grasp, Had seized thy mortal frame, Thy ardent and inspiring mind, Untouched, remained the same.

-from the grave marker of Simon Whipple Aldrich, 1814-1841, North Smithfield. Rhode Island

 

 

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Discoveries

By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2014

This is a day when we think about the discovery of the New World. It is a good time to think about the meanings of discovery.

There are probably places where the question “Who discovered America?” could provoke a fight or at least start a heated argument, because there are several possible answers.

Paleo-Indians

The ancestors of modern Native Americans certainly arrived in the New World long before anyone else. Yet they also would have had no idea that they had “discovered” a new place. No peoples of 20,000 years ago would have had a concept of the world advanced enough for the concept of discovery to make any sense. My ancestors certainly did not suddenly realized that they had “discovered” Europe either. They followed herds and looked for edible plants and water and shelter, and ended up in a place that they had not been before—something that probably happened with some regularity.

On the other hand, if a native of 500 years ago had overheard European explorers discussing how they had “discovered” this great new place, that hypothetical native observer could be excused for thinking “Ahem…we noticed this place just a bit before you. Actually, wait a moment, beards, funny hats…haven’t I just discovered Europeans?”

Vikings

About 1100 years ago, Vikings reached what is now Canada. They were looking for new places and they certainly found a place that was new to them. Yet, they could have had no idea that they had accomplished a sea voyage to the edge of another continent. Their settlements didn’t last. Instead of leading to a spreading knowledge in the Old World that there was land far to the west, that information faded into legend. What they did was a dead end. Permanent contact across the Atlantic would have to wait.

Columbus

Here is where the credit traditionally goes. He reached the New World roughly 500 years after the Norse but his knowledge spread throughout the world. It wasn’t a dead end, but, though the evidence is mixed, Columbus seems to have gone to his grave believing that he had not discovered a new world, but that he had reached Asia.

Amerigo Vespucci

Though Columbus’s misidentification of the natives of the places he reached as Asians led to the term “Indians” being used for them, Vespucci’s Latinized given name, Americus, led to the a new name for the New World. There will probably always be room for doubt, but he may have been the first explorer to realize that it was not Asia that had been reached but rather someplace else entirely, a New World.

Discovery

So who discovered the New World? The people who reached it first but who would have had no way of knowing what they had accomplished? The people who knew that had reached someplace different but whose knowledge faded into legend? The man who spread the knowledge of land far to the west of Europe but who may never have thought of it as a truly new place? The man who was far from first in reaching it, but who seems to have realized that it was a New World? Did they all discover the New World? Did none of them “discover” it?

Genealogical Discovery

We make discoveries in genealogy all the time, and those 4 types that appear in the story of the discovery of the New World appear in family history as well.

  1. Sometimes we are nomadic hunters of clues. We follow herds of hints across the landscape but don’t actually know that we are first to reach a whole, new area. The knowledge to help us realize that is just not something that we have.
  2. Sometimes we’re genealogical Icelanders. We set off to explore. We find the tip of the iceberg and realize this is something new but further progress eludes us and we aren’t able to spread our information.
  3. Sometimes we make a discovery. We know it is big. We shout it from the mountaintops but in the end, we don’t really know what it is.
  4. Sometimes we find a little something. We think about it and combine it with other discoveries, often made by others, and suddenly we know that things are very different from what we thought. It may not be a whole new world, but a piece of the past has been discovered and put on the map.

In our genealogical voyages of discovery, the goal is the final step to that fourth type of discovery—to have the evidence, know what it means, and pass the knowledge on.

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