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Spam! Spam! Spam!

By Daniel Hubbard | September 27, 2015


The Monty Python sketch that gave us our term for unwanted email.

Ancestors, everyone has them, and spam, everyone gets it. So, I hope you’re asking yourself, where’s the connection, beside the ubiquity, that is.

A lot of the spam that I have gotten lately is of what I think of as the “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper” variety. You can send a message with that opening to a lot of people and a significant fraction of the recipients will fall into that category. How many of them will be suckered into believing in whatever prize the sender claims they have won is another matter. The point is that so many people fall into that category, that it can be used at random with a significant chance of being right. You might also get email warning you that it has been detected that your copy of Windows is in serious need of a security patch. Said patch can be downloaded by clicking on a link in the email. Once again, lots of people will be reading that email on a machine that runs Windows. Presumably some subset of them will believe it. Once again, there is a reasonably high chance that sending those emails at random will result in a large fraction of the recipients being people running Windows. Believing that it is for you personally, just because an email is addressed to “Walmart Shopper,” or that because an email is sent about Windows and you’ve got a Windows machine, that it must be legitimate, are clearly mistakes.

When we think about the implications of evidence we find in genealogical research, we need to think about coincidence and probability as well. Some evidence can be like those examples of spam. It looks legitimate on the surface, it looks like something interesting, and yet it only seems relevant. If enough people look at it, someone is bound to concluded it is close enough to be relevant. Remember, that someone might be you. Of course, to someone else it might be real evidence, but to you it is just coincidence. It might be random chance or it might be a cousin of the person for whom you’re searching, named for the same ancestor. Either way, they only way to think about these things is to think about the probabilities. What is the probability of another person with the same unusual name in the same area? Higher than you’d think if there was an earlier ancestor with that name that both people are named for.

When you get an email that opens with “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper,” you ask yourself if you are, in fact, a loyal Walmart shopper, if not, you mark it as spam. What if you really do shop at Walmart often? What if you really have an ancestor named Ichabod Wilkins? Then you take the next step and examine things more deeply.  Would Walmart send an email without any branding or mention of their website? Would Ichabod appear without any of the expected family members? Would an email from Walmart really come from What was your Ichabod Wilkins doing two states over from where he is expected to be? Would any legitimate business send you a prize claim form as a zip file in an email? Did destitute Ichabod really leave an enormous estate to a child you knew nothing about, and no one else?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on spammers. They are, perhaps, providing the best practical education in critical thinking there is, though unfortunately as a sort of natural selection by survival of the most wary.

Remember, critical thinking isn’t just good for recognizing the signs of spam, you can recognize the signs of illusory evidence about your ancestors too. So, in conclusion, please click here to download your free royal ancestor.

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Genealogy Related Injuries

By Daniel Hubbard | September 20, 2015

When I lived in Sweden, people would often joke about how a particular quirk in their thinking was a “work related injury.” It can happen to anyone. Some things become so deeply ingrained that they affect the way with think and it comes out in some odd ways.

So how does genealogy affect they way we think? Have you ever-

  1. said something like “Well, 1852 wasn’t that long ago” when a bit of history comes up during casual conversation?
  2. written the wrong century on a check?
  3. found yourself apologizing for forgetting someone’s name by telling them that, “Sorry, I’m a genealogist, I remember the names of dead people really well. It’s a good sign for you that I’ve forgotten yours.”
  4. used the word “died” when another person would have said “passed away”? (On a not so funny note, I’ve noticed this lately when people that I haven’t seen in a while ask how my father is doing. If I say that he died, there is a subtle hitch in peoples’ reactions that I don’t get when I say “He passed away.”)
  5. casually mentioned exploring cemeteries when everyone else in the conversation spent their weekend at the beach or the ballpark? Do you then wonder why they looked at you a bit funny?
  6. just assumed that everyone knows what NARA, FHL, LAC and GRO mean?
  7. written something using language that reads like it came straight out of a ca. 1880 county history?
  8. looked at a year ending in 0 and had your first thought be that it was a census year, totally independent of the context? (Canadian and U.K. readers, please substitute “1” for “0”. Come to think of it, bonus points to American readers that see dates ending in a “1” and think Canadian or U.K. census year.)
  9. anticipated the arrival in the mail of things that most people aren’t so keen on? Things like death notices and divorce proceedings?
  10. had the total at the grocery checkout, say $106.29, remind you of, say Cumberland County, Maine, Deed Indexes?

Any of that have a familiar feel to it?


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A Different Map of Time

By Daniel Hubbard | September 13, 2015

Tomorrow is the beginning of the new year in the Jewish Calendar. Though I don’t claim to be an expert in the workings of that calendar, I know that even that first sentence is problematic. What do I mean by “tomorrow”? Typically it might mean the 24 hour period following the next midnight. That doesn’t work here because in this case, the day ends and the new day begins at sunset. On different calendars those little squares that often indicate days, might not mean the same thing. There is another problem with that first statement but I’ll have to get to that later. That just this one simple sentence can be problematic in two different ways, says something about not taking things for granted.

There are many other factors besides when the day changes that go into the workings of a calendar. We tend to take them so much for granted that it is easy to assume that whatever date we look at, it must mean exactly what we think it means. Taking a look at another calendar, is like when one first realizes that there are languages beyond your native language. I don’t remember when I first realized that languages other than English exist, or exactly how I realized it. Most people probably first realize that other languages mean other words. It might not be until one actually studies a foreign language that one realizes that the rules of another language can be, and almost certainly are, different from the rules of your mother tongue. Much of what is interesting in languages and in calendars is how those rules differ. A different New Year is a fine time to think about those rules.


At least from a purely technical point of view, the day on which the year begins is arbitrary. A calendar can use any day as the first day of the year. In the Gregorian Calendar, the next year begins 365 or 366 days after the previous year, with that extra day being added to keep the calendar and the sun aligned. Of course there are other ways of deciding when a new year begins.

What if the solar year isn’t divided into roughly equal twelfths? What if the months are defined by the moon? The moon goes through its phases in a bit less than a twelfth of a solar year. Twelve lunar months is less than a solar year but thirteen is longer than the solar year. One could simply say that the year is twelve lunar months long and start the next year at the start of the next lunar month. One could also be a bit fancier and add a thirteenth month often enough to keep the calendar roughly aligned with the solar year, which is what the Jewish Calendar does.

Different calendars have different rules for how to adjust the year, if they bother to adjust it at all. How much does one adjust with a single adjustment? By a day? By a month? A mixture of the two? How often does one make that adjustment? Every few years according to some rule? Does one use special rules to avoid problematic adjustments? When during the year does one make those adjustments?

The Jewish Calendar adds an extra month every few years on a 19 year cycle. When does it do that? The simple answer is that the extra month is the twelfth month, but it is the twelfth month counting from the ecclesiastical new year, which occurs in the spring, not the civil new year which occurs around the autumnal equinox. Two different beginnings for the year in the same calendar might sound odd to many today, but a few hundred years ago in the English speaking world, the year began both on the first of January and on the 25th of March, depending on how one reckoned. That is the second problem with my first sentence. To be technically correct, I should have stated which new year I meant.

One might assume that adding an extra month would mean that there was no need to have a month like February, which has an adjustable length, but calendars are amazing things, and the Jewish Calendar has two months with adjustable lengths in order to prevent certain holidays (including Rosh Hashanah, civil new year itself) from falling on inappropriate days of the week. To try to put that into terms that might be more familiar to many people (myself included), it would be what would have to be done if Easter was defined not just to be on a Sunday, but on a specific date. The calendar would need to be adjusted by a few days in most years in order to force that date to be on a Sunday.

I sincerely hope that I got this correct. If I missed something, it only goes to show that in researching our genealogy, we can’t take the workings of the calendar in use for granted, and that mistakes are all to easy to make. Our calendar rules are what they are, we just can’t assume that the rules are simple or that our ancestors’ calendars followed the same rules as ours.

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Researching at the Veil

By Daniel Hubbard | September 7, 2015

A veil can be a piece of cloth used to hide a face. It can also be anything that conceals or obscures. “Beyond the veil” is defined as a hidden, mysterious place. I can’t think of any aspect of genealogy that doesn’t interest me, but there are some that hold a special fascination. One is researching at the cusp of that misty territory where surnames are still crystallizing and places were not yet organized as the are today, so that they are all but unrecognizable. Even the spellings of given names can be odd in that special way that things feel strange when they skirt the edge of the expected without ever feeling quite right. Dialect words and spellings can give whole groups of records that not-quite-right feeling. Handwriting isn’t necessarily “bad,” as it can be in any time period, but truly alien, bearing little resemblance to anything more recent, or even human. Records become uneven, but still dangle hope. It is hard to precisely define what that genealogical veil is, but eventually one learns to recognize it when one reaches it. You see the fog roll into view and you know you are there.

Foggy_meadowLately, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research where that fog bank begins. Places like the Margraviate of Baden and the Duchy of Berg, both places that might be considered Germany, yet the modern nation was still hundreds of years in the future, and at any time a dynastic squabble or marriage might make or break such a place. Given names have an odd ring. “Stingen” was not the lead singer for an early German-speaking version of The Police, but rather Christina. Men and women sometimes appear in records with only their given names; that was, apparently, enough. Other times they appear as being “of” a place. That place name was not their surname. If they moved, it would change, breaking the continuity that can normally be gleaned from names. Yet a son or a daughter might no longer have that “of” in their name. They might leave home and yet still retain that place in their names. A surname was perhaps being born, and, at the same time, it was hinting at their recent place of origin, the kind of double duty that can be so necessary when researching at the veil. The fog was perhaps just barely lifting.

I find special meaning at this place. Beyond it, the common man and woman begin to fade from view. Not just some people, the veil is not a brick wall that appears for that one troubling ancestor, it isn’t a troubling gap in the records, but a threshold. Beyond it, genealogy is still possible, but it is done in the fog and mist.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part G

By Daniel Hubbard | August 30, 2015

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 children that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for appendix, written by the family sages.

B is for binding that broke and lost those pages.

So what might an alphabet book for genealogists might look like? I’ve already taken a stab at “A,”  “B,”  “C,”  “D,”  “E,” and “F.” So, for genealogists, what might “G” be for?

G is for Geography

“G” could be for “geography,” those twists of rivers, mountain passes, and impassable obstacles that provided boarders and determined which ways that migrants might travel.

“G” could be for “GAR,” three letters that tell you that you are dealing with a Union veteran.

“G” could be for “gedcom,” genealogy’s double edged sword, those files that allow information to be easily shared, but also make it easy for the unwary to add a nearly infinite variety of misinformation to their research at the click of a mouse.

“G” could be for “gps,” but which one? Perhaps the genealogical proof standard that guides us in our research, or perhaps the global positioning system that guides us to the cemetery then geotags our grave marker photos. Either one would fit in the genealogists alphabet.

“G” could be for “Germany,” a fine example of the problems we encounter. Americans may talk about their ancestors from Germany without ever realizing that at the time that their ancestor crossed the ocean, there was no such nation. When we use our mental models for one time period to try to understand another, we can be led astray.

Those are all fine words, but, the most important word beginning with “G” must be “Genealogy” itself. It is what we do. It is the study of our origins in the minutest detail we can manage. It is the careful examination of those people, those little nooks and crannies of history that contribute to who we are, and, perhaps, help us to understand the myriad origins of those around us.

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By Daniel Hubbard | August 23, 2015

When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.
Bruce Mau

I ran into that quote a few days ago. Bruce Mau is a designer and architect, not a genealogist, but this is one of those concepts that genealogist need to consider. We often think about researching an ancestor. We think about that as if it is an isolated act, with only those genetic relationships we place in our genealogical charts as being relevant. There are, though, many, many connections—to people, places, occupations, organizations… It all matters.

It matters to our research. Different connections provide different clues. Different light is thrown on our problems. Those connections may even help us to define that elusive ancestor. When names change, or are too common, it is those connections that can link together to form our safety net and let us determine who was who.

It matters to who our ancestors were. It isn’t just that those connections are useful to us in our research. It is that those connections were important to our ancestors in their lives. We cannot hope to understand them without those connections, because they would not have been who they were without them. Those connections hold and hint at some of the richness of those lives.

What connections have you documented for your ancestors? How have they proved useful? What connections might you have missed?

When everything is connected, everything matters when hunting ancestors.

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Down by the Old Mill Stream

By Daniel Hubbard | August 16, 2015

graue mill wheel 2 scaled

Graue Mill’s water wheel

I like to explore the lives of the people I research. One well-chosen tidbit of information can be extrapolated into possibilities, probabilities and even near certainties. There are many ways to do that exploring. Reading history and historical fiction are ways. Examining documents relating to other people in similar situations is another way. One of my favorite ways is to visit the right sort of place that still exists in another time.

One branch of my family were mill owners, millers and millwrights. I have maps with their mills marked on them, and documents and histories mentioning their mills, which span more than a century. The mills themselves are long gone. I’ll never be able to visit one, but I can try. This passed week, my family and I did the next best thing and visited the Graue Mill (west of Chicago), a stand-in for those ancestral mills. Dating from the 1850s, it was built more than a century after the first of my ancestors’ mills but only twenty years more recently than the last. It stands in the flat lands of the Midwest and the first of my ancestors mills were in the highlands of New England, where water power was much easier to come by. The last of my ancestors’ mills, though, was in Wisconsin where the land was flat but the mill was certainly built of wood not of the fine brick and stone of this mill. No one place can stand in for a half dozen that no longer exist, but there is still much to learn and experience.

The gearing of mills always amazes me, even if I understand how it turns the slow but powerful rotation of the water wheel in to the rapid spinning of the millstones. The enormous wooden gears, shafts, and pinions are quite a sight. A mill isn’t so much a building with some machinery in it, as a machine that happens to have a building as part of its structure. Though the conduits for grain and the system of ropes and buckets that once moved grain and flour up and down in the mill are gone, every one of the mill’s four stories was part of that machine.

Learning from the miller

Learning from the miller

The miller explained many things for us. One was that millers preferred to turn corn into meal over turning wheat into flour. Corn meal leaves the millstones ready to bag. Flour must be sifted, both because different qualities of flour are produced at the same time and to remove the hulls. All that work had to be done on the upper floor and not a single metal tool was allowed there. He showed us a wooden shovel of the type that would be used. Flour mixed with air in the right quantity can explode from the least spark from an iron tool. If I remember right, he said that an old piece of miller’s wisdom was that if you were working with flour, the moment you could no longer see the front door, was the moment you should be running out of it. (Mr. Wizard used to do an experiment using a paint can as a substitute for a flour mill. He produced a nice explosion. If you imagine being inside a whole building that goes up like that paint can, you understand why exiting a mill full of flour-filled air would be a very, very good idea.)

The miller also explained some of the intricacies of mill stones. The mill’s stones are the originals from the 1850s, but they are no simple pieces of rock. To get just the right kind of stone, they were imported from a quarry in France. They are not single pieces of stone, but rather wedges that were cemented together and then put into a snug-fitting, hot iron hoop. When the hoop cooled, it shrank and squeezed the wedges to make them function as a single piece of stone. Then the stone of the pair that would spin was carefully balanced by adding plaster to the top. An improperly balanced stone, spinning rapidly, would shake the machinery apart and possibly break the stone itself. The worst case was probably that the stone would produce sparks and set off an explosion.

Some parts of the past we can only read about and imagine. Some parts, though, are still here in their own way. Experiencing them directly can be a wonderful way to gain those precious little insights into our ancestors’ lives.


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Crumbs & Threads

By Daniel Hubbard | August 9, 2015

I think there is a certain beauty in hanging by a thread. So often research fades out. We try harder and harder to find just that little bit more about that one mysterious ancestor. We might turn up a crumb here and a crumb there. Nothing dramatic but a few minor, if pleasant, details of a life to reward us.

Then we find something very different. Sometimes instead of a crumb, we find a thread. It is thin. It might not tell us much about the life in question, but it is long. It stretches beyond that ancestor who had been the end of the line. Suddenly new paths open up leading to ancestors further and further back. For me of late, the role of that thread has been played by a passenger list with a cluster of interesting names. Facts that match on this side of the Atlantic and names that match on the other. A small addition to knowledge on one end, and three generations of research made possible at the other end of that thread. On this side of the Atlantic, the immigrants life is still not well known, but on the other side generations, migrations and wars.

That one ancestor may still remain a bit of a mystery but is no longer a dead end. There is a thread that leads back to people who may grow to be very real.

There is something beautiful in this hanging by a thread. A thin connection exists, just one clue in one document. At what was the end a fragile link goes back a generation to a new community with new people, new ancestors, new lives. A whole new world to explore, and it hangs to yours by that wonderful little thread.

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A Face in the Crowd

By Daniel Hubbard | August 2, 2015

Oftentimes we research honed in on a single person. That is the genealogical norm. True, many of us have multiple ongoing bits of research but we are still researching individuals, one here, one there but individuals nonetheless. Any one person comes into focus sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

Sometimes that way of working takes us nowhere. Then it might be time to research a whole community with all its complexity320px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Children’s_Games_-_Google_Art_Project. No one comes into quick focus, but the fog may slowly lift on a whole village and allow us to pick who we want out of the crowd. It can be a laborious process. It can mean defining people not so much by who they are, but who they aren’t. It can mean figuring out who was neighbors with whom, who had come of age and who had passed away, a sort of fencing in of people in space and time. They might be people that you have no idea why you might be interested in them. Yet every little adjustment of the lens that brings them into better focus, brings the whole community into better focus. Eventually, those obscure references in records start to make sense and provide clues instead of confusion. Eventually, you might be able to pick your ancestor’s face out of the crowd.

Lately I’ve been researching a rural community in Tennessee back into the 1780s. There are no easy answers, so following ill-defined land sales and figuring out who was neighbors with who is the order of the day. The men I’m researching at any given moment may have nothing to do with the immediate problem, but that they were neighbors tells me something of the spacial relationships between their other neighbors and starts to show where other people might have lived, or if they still lived there at all. When a man sold what seems to be his last piece of land in the county, it hints that he may have moved ons and the picture becomes just that little bit less fuzzy.

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Working at Cross Purposes

By Daniel Hubbard | July 27, 2015

I’ve been reading the book How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordon Ellenberg. Toward the end of the book, he briefly picked up one of my favorite themes, working to disprove hypotheses.  He started of with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald-

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

I can’t vouch for that actually being able to sort out a “first-rate intelligence,” I don’t think it needs to be taken quite that literally to draw something useful from Fitzgerald’s statement. What we can take from the quote is a hint at the idea that we should be trying to both prove and disprove our hypotheses. One can only know in retrospect that work to prove, or disprove, a hypothesis was done in vain. “Retrospect” literally means “back looking.” The question is how much “back looking” one wants to risk needing to do. Working for years to prove something, only to learn that it was not true, is a lot of “back looking.” At the same time working to disprove something, only to find out that it really was true after all, means that time might have been better spent.

According to Ellenberg, the folk wisdom passed down from advisor to mathematics student is that one should work to prove an idea by day and to disprove it by night. Working like that might seem odd (and the day night split is not the mandatory way of handling it) but there are good reasons to work on hard problems this way. One I’ve already hinted at. It is a way of hedging one’s bets and reducing the time spent on the wrong thing. Another is that assuming that the attempts at disproof fail, those failures are informative. In genealogy they can start to build up negative evidence for your idea. If something could reasonably be disproven by land sale X, birth record Y or census entry Z and none of those things seem to exist, it might be telling you something. That thing could be that you’ve forgotten to check for probate records that would disprove your hypothesis, but it could also be telling you that there is very little wiggle room for your hypothesis to be wrong, and that is valuable knowledge. You have negative evidence for your hypothesis in that lack of evidence for other possibilities.

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