By Daniel Hubbard | December 8, 2013
Every once in a while I hear someone make a comment about how they can only name people along a few generations of their ancestry even if they have researched a dozen generations. I find that there is something mesmerizing or perhaps meditative about turning a family tree over in one’s mind, running through the generations as if they were frames in a film or visualizing the lines of a pedigree as they shoot back in time.
There is an ancient memory technique that goes by the formal name “the method of loci,” memory by locations. The common name for the collection of locations is “memory palace.” I think that is the perfect term. Even without knowing what is meant, the term “memory palace” evokes something. It creates an image and doing that is very appropriate. The whole idea of a memory palace is that memory is enhanced by attaching it to a place that you know well and in your imagination filling that place with striking imagery. It is based on the observation that we remember our way around places very well. Who can’t close their eyes and take a walk around their childhood home as if they were there?
In the days before teleprompters, orators would remember speeches that could go on for hours by imagining a building, then imagining a path that they could walk through that building and then filling separate locations, doorways, hallways and rooms, with memorable images that somehow reminded them of what they wished to say. A roman orator who wished to remember to discuss public works, first talking about improvements to the water supply and then mentioning harbor repairs might include a broken aqueduct which repeatedly disgorges a ship that crashes into a pier in his memory palace. The stranger the imagery the easier it is to remember things. As our ancient orator mentally walked from location to location, each bizarre sight would remind him of the next topic in his speech.
I have my own little ancestral memory palace. It is filled with bizarre representations of surnames and strange symbols for occupations. If only I had a great-grandma Polly who had some questionable character traits, I could place a parrot riding a wildly bucking black sheep in one room of my memory palace.
Some rooms might be like little museums, filled with reminders about a certain ancestor. If you have no trouble remembering that an ancestor was a pioneer and later worked on a canal, you might simply place a log cabin and a canal boat in his room. If you have a harder time remembering his involvement with canals, place him on top of a surfboard sized canal boat and have him catch a wave.
The locations are a tougher problem when constructing a genealogical memory palace than the contents. The standard memory palace is a familiar building through which the memorizer can plot a single unique path and place the reminders that need to be encountered one after the other as they walk through. What building branches over and over so that every hallway leads to two more? I’m certainly not familiar with one. A genealogist’s memory palace, not just the objects in it, needs to be constructed in the mind because no such physical building could exist. My own genealogical memory palace is filled with branching corridors, the splits marked odd bits of imagination that represent new surnames and the rooms off to the side are each filled with reminders of a single ancestor.
Of course this isn’t necessary. I carry my genealogy in my pocket and can pull up any ancestor with a few taps. There is, though, something sublime about having those corridors of memory in my mind where I can get the feeling of traveling through time. It is, I think, a form of meditation.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 1, 2013
Last week I wrote a bit about Mayflower passenger George Soule. One thing that I mentioned was that he wrote a will that names his children. He did his genealogical duty. What I didn’t mention was a very interesting detail of his probate.
George gave, or had already given, something to each of his surviving children—not unusual. He left the bulk of his estate to his eldest son—not unusual. He named his eldest son to be the executor of his estate—also not unusual. Then something changed.
He wrote that he had already given his younger sons all of his lands in Dartmouth and a pair of daughters had received his lands in Middleberry. He began to give away the rest of his estate naming two other daughters who were to receive 12 pence each. That left eldest son John as the last sibling to be mentioned. He and his family were thanked for their care and the tenderness and love that they had shown George during the latter’s decline. John’s bequest was simple. He was to receive “all the Remainder of my housing and lands.” It was to be a very significant amount. Of George’s significant estate, John would receive everything except for twenty-four pence that would go to two of his sisters. John was to be his father’s executor as well. At least that is what is contained in George’s will of August 11, 1677.
By September 20 something had happened. It must have been dramatic. George is silent about the cause but on that date he added a codicil to his will. It is short and to the point. John and his family, who had been heralded for their loving aid to his father just under six weeks earlier, were suddenly seen very differently—
If my son John Soule above named or his heires or Assignes of any of them shall att any time Disturbe my Daughter Patience or her heires or Assignes or any of them in peaceable Posession or Injoyment of the lands I have Given her…then my Gift to my son John Soule shall be voyd and that then my will is that my Daughter Patience shall have all my lands in Duxburrey And shee shalbe my sole executrix…
I wonder. What was it that caused George to suddenly change his attitude toward his son’s family? I’d like to be able to look back in time and see the argument or learn of the discovery that gave a dying man the jolt that made him add that codicil. As with many a genealogical riddle, I can see a hundred different versions of the story but may never know the one hundred and first version that contains the truth. What would cause him to write that if his son or practically anyone associated with his son should “disturb” his daughter or her family then John would get nothing and his sister, who had already received land, would inherit everything else as well? John would also suffer what could only have been seen in the seventeenth century as the humiliation of being displaced as executor by his sister. The eldest son ousted in favor of the youngest daughter was not something that would have been lost on John or on Plymouth society as a whole. For whatever reason, his father drew a line and warned his son that if he or anyone in his family crossed it, economic retaliation and social disgrace would follow.
By the following February, George was dead.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 24, 2013
It is that time of year when children’s thoughts veer from pumpkins to Pilgrims to prancing hooves in rapid succession. Genealogical research won’t put a jack-o-lantern or a flying reindeer into their family trees but what about a Pilgrim? Through a child’s eyes, the level of reality is about the same and, even to many adults, the passengers on the Mayflower are just some half-remembered residents of that foggy place known as grade school history class.
Perhaps the most profound part of family history is the discovery of our own personal links to the past—pulling at least some of the sweep of the human experience out of the history books and claiming it for one’s own. Those links might be to nearly nameless men and women or to the famous and infamous. The point is that the links are there waiting to be found. They might be links to people very similar to ourselves or people so alien that it is almost hard to realize that we have just laid claim them.
…What do Mayflowers Bring?
As part of a large project, I’ve been researching a colonial family from Connecticut. A few weeks ago, I traced the family back to Plymouth County, Massachusetts in the late 1690s. A decade earlier that county and all the rest of New England had been put together into the “Dominion of New England.” The Dominion was unpopular and when the the English overthrew James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Dominion government was quickly overthrown as well. Massachusetts Bay Colony reverted to its previous colonial charter but Plymouth Colony had never had a charter. In London, the new monarchs, William and Mary, decided to merge the two into a single colony and the colony of the Pilgrims ceased to exist as a separate political entity and Plymouth County joined Massachusetts.
As I worked back to those earlier times, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, became Plymouth Colony and the population dwindled until only a few people from a few ships were living there. I’ve researched in Plymouth Colony’s records before but never ended with a Mayflower passenger. Now Halloween had passed and so had the first week of November. If you are a little kid, pumpkin season was over and Pilgrim season was beginning. And this time there are some little kids in the family who might turn out to be “part Pilgrim.” Once reindeer season begins, that news wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.
So I decided that I had to try to find if the trail ended with a Pilgrim before the magic moment had passed. Luckily George Soule was kind to me. He deeded land to his children and listed them in his will even if their births were not recorded. When the colony’s land was divided among the colonists for the first time in 1623, the receivers of the land were listed according to the ship upon which they had arrived and George Soule is listed under the Mayflower. The original Mayflower Compact no longer exists and none of the the early transcriptions includes the list of signatories but the list was copied and published in 1669. On that list is the name George Soule. I got the privilege of sending a quick email with the findings before Thanksgiving, before the climax of “Pilgrim Season,” when it might make it a little bit more exciting to be a little kid eating turkey on a Thursday in November. Sometimes it is cool to be a genealogist.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 17, 2013
Yesterday was the second annual “Exploring Your Swedish Roots” at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. I was one of the researchers who helped people with their Swedish research problems. I always enjoy events like this. In a way it was almost an athletic event. Every half hour, for five hours, a new research problem to try to get a handle on, a new set of names and dates and relationships with new sets of evidence as input and new clues to tease out of what is already known. When an event like that is over the feeling is very similar to the one I remember having after a track meet—a mixture of exhaustion and joy.
One of the most enjoyable things is working with people with different levels of experience and so many different types of problems. Today one visitor had been researching for years, so he knew quite a bit about his ancestry but there was a name that appeared in his family seemingly out of nowhere and a story that had been passed down about a soldier in the family. Swedish soldiers were issued new names to go with their uniforms. The alternative would be a company of men made up of 50% Svenssons, 30% Larssons and the remainder made up of a mixture of Perssons and Olofssons. Imagine that chaos that would ensue when an officer bellowed “Svensson come here.” So Swedish soldiers got new, unique names when they joined the army. A new name just appearing in the family and a family story of a soldier. Could their be a connection? Not this time, both men turned out to be mill workers. There may be something to the story but it wasn’t to be found among them.
Someone else I helped was looking for the origins of her Swedish grandfather. I found him but needed to also explain that he was born out of wedlock. When I first started researching that was still a discovery which was not always accepted or even to be discussed. It was often actively denied despite the evidence. I guess because of that I still have a moment of hesitation when I need to bring it up even if it is never a problem anymore. In this case the response was, “Well, that confirms the old family rumors. Great!” I even found that he had taken his maternal grandfather’s name and used it as a surname when he emigrated. There will always be more mysteries but at least that one was solved.
The last bit of research was in many ways the most fun. She was just starting out and only had some notes jotted down from research she had been helped with just a few minutes before. We got both Swedish branches of her family back a generation without too much trouble. She was ecstatic. Her reaction reminded me of the joy that can come with making those first discoveries when even the possibility that those ancestors can be found is a revelation and finding a few families can double or triple a family tree. Suddenly you have names, dates and occupations. You have places that you can dream of visiting. You have a personal past.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 11, 2013
Just about every year at this time, I write something about the First World War. The anniversary of the end of that horror is the reason that Veterans Day falls on the 11th of November.
Last year, the last living veteran of the war died. Next year, July 28 will bring the one hundredth anniversary of the day in 1914 when the war began. After the assassination of their heir to the throne, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. It was done knowing that Germany would lend support if needed. That date is years before the United States became involved but within days of that first declaration, Europe was at war.
The reason that the Austrians wanted guarantees of German support was Serbia’s sizable main ally, Russia. The army of the Russian Empire began to mobilize two days after the Austrian declaration. The Germans felt that their survival hinged on making sure that they did not fight a war simultaneously both in the west and in the east. They would go on the offensive and win the war in the west before the Russian Army was fully ready. On August 4, Germany invaded Belgium as way of getting its army into France as quickly as possible. It was believed by the German high command that the army had 950 hours to defeat France before they would be forced to turn it around to face east. The clock had begun to tick the moment the Russian army began to mobilize. As the clock ticked out the last of those 950 hours, the French and British stopped the German advance within artillery range of Paris. The 950 hours had run out. Four years later the clock was still ticking its last furious ticks and the German’s own prediction, defeat France in 950 hours or be defeated, was mere weeks from coming true.
My own relationship to the Western Front changed years ago. I’ve mentioned before that my wife’s grandfather had been in the trenches of the Western Front but on the German side. He started to keep a diary even before the war. He continued to keep it during his months of fighting. He continued after he was badly wounded and left the fighting for good. Sometime next year the diaries that her grandfather kept will be published as a graphic novel. They will be printed in German and in French in remembrance of the one hundredth anniversary of those years that hollowed out the collective soul of a generation.
I wonder, what will it feel like to see all those drawings that will depict a piece of the history of my family, drawn as they will be with the intent of capturing a piece of the history of a continent?Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 3, 2013
One of the tricky things to deal with in any research is evidence that leads you astray. There are some things in genealogy to avoid some such problems. We try to understand how records are created and how imperfections might sneak in.
The misinformed and distraught informant used to create a death certificate might not know the names of her departed husbands parents but think that she does, or might be so upset that he gives the wrong date of birth for his wife, even though they had observed the correct birthday for many years. The child that is left off the will might have been alive and well and on good terms with his father but has already received all that was due to him, so he goes unmentioned. The census enumerator might have found no one home and simply talked to a neighbor to get the best information that he could. These are all things that can happen and that we simply need to consider as we think about how trustworthy any piece of evidence actually is.
This week I ran into too many examples of closely a related problem. The person who created the record or cataloged it simply made some sort of mistake. Not a slip of memory. Not giving us information in a way that might seem odd today and not choosing an informant that was less qualified than one would hope. Those are categories of problems that we can anticipate depending on the type of record. These were more random. That makes them harder to anticipate but not so difficult to deal with if we keep our eyes open.
Bump 1 Some bumps in the road the record travels are obvious enough. They come with big, yellow, firmly-planted warning signs. I ran into a database of information extracted from a set of annually produced city directories. Very nice. One gets a name, an address, an occupation and of course since the directories were produced annually you get the year as well. Except in this case. Most of the entries had years but the one that was most crucial to me did not. Annual directories come with years of publication often right in their titles but somehow the information was lost.
Bump 2 Missing information is one thing but wrong is another. I found a widow that I was tracing in an 1894 directory. That was quite a coup because she had supposedly died by 1886. This time though, there were proper pages to examine. The book was cataloged as the 1894 directory, but if so, it was an amazing feat of prognostication because the publication date on the title page was 1884.* I think that has to be one of the downsides of digitized books–you don’t see the cover, you just jump right to the place your search leads you, trusting that you are actually in the book you think you are in, trusting that nothing like this example of time travel has occurred. Remember to check that digitized title page.
Bump 3 A microfilm that I ordered to check if the child I was looking for might have been baptized in the parish covered by the film also had a bit of time travel to it. Luckily, I was interested in the baptisms first. I found what I wanted and I was by then familiar with the span of years covered. Then I decided to check the marriages. If I had been interested in the marriages first, I might not have noticed that baptisms and burials ran to much later dates than the marriages. Odd…and wrong. The marriages were supposed to run only to the 1820s. I stopped checking when I got well past 1848, when the baptism occurred. At least two extra decades of marriages were there beyond what the label claimed.
Bump 4 I was looking for a woman on a passenger list. I had the approximate year, I had her birth year but no luck. I tried various combinations of things in the search that I was performing. Some more research turned up her husband’s given name. Bingo, found him right away. She was listed right below him. He was 32. She was 30, just like I would have predicted. Hmm… The index had her as 80. Well, that is too bad but it is understandable, the 30 did look something like 80. What was odd was that in the original, she was listed without a surname, just a blank because it was understood that her name was the same as her husband’s. Hmm… the index has her husband’s surname correct but hers was totally mangled. I still wonder what the exact sequence of events was that led to her nonexistent name being misinterpreted. Presumably, his was once mangled as well but it certainly is not what one would expect.
Bump 5 Finally, pity the poor clerks. They are the road crews of our research—we all know how vital their jobs are but no one likes it when we have things to do and places to go and they have the nerve to get in our way while they work to make our lives easier. They hold up “slow” signs. They send us on detours. They set out those “bump” warning signs. I was very thankful earlier in the week to find that a clerk had made an entry in a marriage register that proved something important to what I was researching. If I had been researching the couple listed on the line above and not noticed “my” line, I would have made a mistake. On the left hand page, the information on the two lines was different, as it should be for different marriages. The information on the right hand page was identical. The same information had been copied into the register twice but only on that page where it was less noticeable. I know from other evidence that my line was not filled with the random information that one would expect from such a mistake. On close inspection, the line above had enough oddities within in it that only some strange and presumably illegal marriage practices could have produced it.
Sometimes when careening down the information superhighway’s genealogy lane, it can be good to take the off-ramp, get on the frontage road, slow down and take in one’s surroundings. They are often not what they are supposed to be. You might even want to stop and check both the oil and the title page.
* Imagine it is 1884 and you receive you shiny, new 1894 city directory and crack it open to find yourself or your wife listed as “widow of…” Not a good day.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 27, 2013
I sometimes wonder if things that people know about their past when growing up or even the way that they are named influences them later in life. I know that being named for ancestors and hearing stories about them played a role in my becoming a genealogist so it must happen to other people as well. When I was a kid I listened to a DJ on the radio with an interesting name. You’d think that a DJ that had “Records” in his name was just using a nickname but I remember him explaining once that actually, his middle name really was “Records” and yes, it did have some influence on his becoming a DJ. I also think I have a vague memory of my grandmother talking about a fellow doctor by the name of Bonebreak, or some such name. That could always be a coincidence or that name could have provided a gentle push toward an interest in medicine.
A while back, the Swedish-American Museum in Chicago asked me for a little quick research into the ancestry of Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11′s lunar module pilot and the second person to walk upon the moon. He is part Swedish and they were planning an addition to their children’s museum dedicated to him. They wanted to make sure that they had his ancestry correct. For an astronaut, his ancestry is rather interesting if you think that little things we know about our past might give us gentle pushes in certain directions. You see, his mother’s maiden name was “Moon.”
It was his father’s side of the family that was Swedish, so that is what I investigated. I traced his grandfather back to Sweden. I traced him back twice actually, because he came to the U.S., returned to Sweden and then made the crossing again with his family. It was where I found him the year that he left for America the first time that was surprising. In 1886 Karl Johan Aldrin lived at “Stjernsfors Bruk.” Loosely translated that is “The mill at Star’s Rapids.” Hmm…
The Swedish-American Museum’s Buzz Aldrin exhibit opens this weekend and I’m proud to have made my little genealogical contribution.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 20, 2013
(latch clicks, door opens)
“Trick or Treat!”
“Oh, aren’t you cute! A broken microfilm reader! And what are the rest of you?”
“I’m really inaccurate search results!”
“Oh, yes I see! And look, you’re a gedcom file that includes King Arthur and Hercules. Wow, now that is scary!”
“Who else do we have here? You look like Frankenstein’s Monster.”
“I’m an ancestor assembled from spare parts!”
“Oh No! Terrible. So what would you like? I have some lovely microfilms.”
“Oh we love those!”
“Just don’t scroll through them all at once, they’ll give you blurry vision.”
“The volunteers here are always so nice!”
“Wow, I got two “fun sized” New York state census reels for Oswego County. What did you get?”
“I got a reel of Cleveland marriage licenses!”
“Mine says ‘Baptisms: St. Underpants upon Washbasin Parish, Ripplethwaite’ … I’ll never understand British research.”
“No, me neither.”
“You don’t suppose there are real underpants in there?”
“Hope not… Hey is that Billy across the street? It looks like him and it would be just like him to dress up that gross.”
“Hey, Billy, that you? What are you?”
“Yep, it’s me. I’m undead! I was born in 1674 but I’m marked “Living” online.”
“Yes, so I’m doomed to wander the earth on Halloween night in search of my probate packet.”
“I think I know where we could find it.”
“There!” (points, ominous background music is heard, the children are suddenly subdued.)
“But mom told me never to go there.”
“We can’t go there. I hear researchers go in never to be seen again.”
“But if Billy needs his probate packet, you know we have to look there now. By tomorrow it will vanish again for another year.”
(Moments later on the front steps)
“I don’t know. I can already smell smoke. I think we’re too late.”
“Nonsense. That’s probably just the smell of the clerks’ candles coming through the window.”
“I dunno. It looks like no one has been in there for 200 years and I don’t think we should go in either.”
Suddenly, lightning flashes, the roof bursts into flames and spectral clerks pour from the windows and doors shrieking and flinging shadowy buckets of water all about. The children freeze in terror as one last archivist-wraith flies straight through the main door screeching and lamenting. He turns toward the little genealogists and bellows the dire warning-
“No one gets probate packets from The Burnt Courthouse.” Then vanishes into the night with a blood-curdling laugh.
The children scream and run as fast as they can back to Billy’s house, barely slowing down to scoop up the poll lists and session laws that flutter from their bags as they run.
Finally, safe at Billy’s, his mother consoles them with extra helpings of hot cider and pension records but poor Billy will have to wait another year for his chance to remove the “Private- Living” label from his costume.
THE ENDTwitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2013
Sometimes we like to think that genealogy tells us “who we are.” I think it might change who we are. I think it can connect us to history. I think it can help us understand the members of our families by revealing something of their formative experiences but I don’t think it tells us who we are in any deterministic sense. I am me regardless of what I just discovered about a sixth great-grandfather. Learning about his experience might change me, might make me think, but it doesn’t actually tell me who I am. Sometimes in fact our family history might tell us who we aren’t, despite the bond of blood.
Case in Point
An incredible example of this has appeared in the news over the last few weeks. A woman in Germany stumbled upon a book. A picture of a woman in the book looked familiar to her so she kept reading. After skimming through it, she read a summary of the life of the woman in the picture and that summary fit what she knew of her biological mother and her maternal grandmother who had committed suicide decades earlier. It was her own family history in that book.
She had grown up not really knowing her biological mother who had put her in a children’s home after becoming pregnant during a brief affair. Now she had found something of her past but this wasn’t the kind of discovery that tells you who you are. It was the kind that tells you who you are not.
The book she discovered was a memoir written by her biological mother. She learned that Ruth, her maternal grandmother, had worked for Oskar Schindler in Krakow in the mid 1940s, which is how she met Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp. She became his mistress and bore him a daughter ten months before he was executed for ordering torture and extermination and for personally torturing and killing a large but unknown number of people. In fact, he was so sadistic that he had been relieved of his command by the SS for his mistreatment of prisoners and eventually ruled mentally ill by SS doctors and committed to a mental institution. This was the maternal grandfather that she had never been told about. All she knew of Amon Goeth came from seeing him portrayed in Schindler’s List long before she knew that he was her grandfather.
That would be unnerving enough but there is one last twist. The woman in question, Jennifer Teege, is biracial. Her father was a Nigerian student. Given the chance, Amon Goeth would have personally shot her.
Our family history doesn’t always tell us about who we are. It can tell us, emphatically, who we are not. But it does always tells us something.
A few links to the story-
By Daniel Hubbard | October 6, 2013
What we present to others, especially non genealogists, are usually the condensed results of research. They would probably not want all the gory details so instead we give them the dry bones, which aren’t necessarily any more palatable. What is it that we should convey? What is it that holds interest?
The Medium is the Message
When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” he was thinking of the interplay between the medium that conveys the message and the message itself. We may convey our message with a quick comment made to a person whose eyes may light up or glaze over. We might convey it with a pedigree chart, a book or anything in between. The medium and the message interact. Some media are good for conveying a few facts, others for conveying a great deal of information and context. Other media may convey a great deal of the richness of the story without spelling out where that information actually originated. Genealogy on television clearly tips toward showing the results of the research without much of the details. How could it do otherwise? A feed of source citations scrolling across the bottom of the screen would interest me at times but would hardly be a plus for the audience in general and would probably annoy nearly everyone at least some of the time. Change the medium to a research report and and it has to have those citations.
Research vs Results
One thing that I ponder often is what a genealogical story actually is. Is it the narrative that could be written based on our research? If we change the medium to a novel, some of the subjects of our research could easily be characters in a book (if anyone would believe them). In the extreme, the novelized ancestor would be stripped of all reference to the sources of the data and all the inferences drawn and all those modifiers that one needs to use in research when things aren’t perfectly clear. The presentation can be a work of art but it doesn’t tell the reader what the evidence was or how the reconstruction was made.
On the other hand, a genealogical story could also be the mystery story of the research itself. In that case the story isn’t a narrative that reflects the lives of the people being researched but rather the process behind discovering them. That sounds dry, but we all know that it isn’t. The thrill of genealogy is the thrill of the chase and it is full of both eureka moments and the intriguing trail of clues that people left behind a century or two ago that we can carefully discover. An ancestor may not have done anything particularly dramatic, yet the process of discovering them might have been truly fascinating. It might be the tale of how nineteen different documents, most of them obscure and hard to locate, were identified, contemplated and pieced together in the one way that makes sense no matter how improbable the result might seem.
So what is the story? I think genealogical stories almost have to be a blending of the two. There are two messages, yin and yang—the tale of the long ago lives and the mystery of their discovery. A genealogical story lives in a quantum world where it can be both Wuthering Heights and and an extensively footnoted tale of Sherlock Holmes. That is the story we should try to tell and the reason it is so difficult.
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