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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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Pluto Genealogy

By Daniel Hubbard | July 19, 2015

Part of the very recent history of my family is my oldest daughter’s love for planets when she was little. Every night I read to her from my old National Geographic planet book. When that wore out, she insisted on being read to from the pages that were still held together by broken bits of spine. Some bedtime reading sessions included hunting through her bookshelf for the middle of the Jupiter chapter or the first two pages on Saturn, or whatever crucial bit was missing.

Pluto, photographed 13 July 2015

Pluto, photographed 13 July 2015

Obviously, I had to buy a new planet book. The new one had much better pictures, but she noticed that the pictures of Pluto weren’t really any better and were not very interesting. Just fuzzy patches. I explained that spaceships had been to the other planets (Pluto was still classified as a planet at the time) since the old book was made and so we had much better pictures of them, but Pluto hadn’t been visited yet. Imagine her excitement when a spaceship was launched toward Pluto. I had to burn a DVD of the launch from video on NASA’s website so that we could watch it. I think it was at the moment of launch that the announcer’s voice said something about New Horizon’s nine and a half year voyage to Pluto. After hearing that a few times, she announced that she was going to have a party when it arrived. Over the years we’ve gone onto NASA’s site every so often to see where New Horizons was. I think it was partially out of interest and partially because she had found memories of the planet book (long since out-grown) and her vow to have a party.

Last week she had her party. She baked a Pluto cake and frosted it according to the latest images, and surrounded it with cupcakes for the moons. She and her friends thought it was good geeky fun. The day of the party, I realized that I might be able to give her a little surprise. When I was a kid and getting interested in genealogy, my mom pointed out that she had an aunt whose maiden name was Tombaugh and that Clyde Tombaugh was the man who discovered Pluto. She didn’t know if they were related but wondered if it was possible. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Great-aunts by marriage weren’t my highest genealogical priority. These days research can sometimes go pretty quickly, and I wondered if my mom’s speculation might not be a fun thing to check. I knew where and when my great-aunt was born and Clyde Tombaugh has a Wikipedia page. It was easy to determine that she and Clyde were from about the same place and born only a few years apart. I would have known about it if they were siblings, but perhaps cousins?

A little census work showed that they couldn’t have been first cousins. A little more work and and I got back to a family indexed as “Farnbaugh” in 1850. Looking at the enumerators handwriting showed that the first letter couldn’t be “F.” A little more checking showed the first letter was “T” and that “rn” was “m,” and that the name was Tambaugh, a reasonable version of Tombaugh. Among the apparent sons of Matthias “Farnbaugh” were the the grandfathers of Clyde and my great-aunt, who were apparently second cousins. I drew it all out on scratch paper and handed it to her during the cake eating and told her I thought that it was correct but didn’t have enough time to do a real proof. Take a sufficiently excited/silly teenager and add a partially supported genealogical argument that her father’s great-aunt by marriage was the second cousin of the man who discovered Pluto and even a genealogist can add to the geeky space-based excitement.

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Backwards and Forwards

By Daniel Hubbard | July 12, 2015

As I gradually get back to normal after the last few months (see Fading & Passing), I thought I would return to my regular weekly posts, though perhaps in a shorter format for a while.

Genealogy is done backwards in time, from known to unknown. That is the way we ought to research, starting from a firm foundation and testing the surrounding ground for pitfalls. Our research doesn’t follow a solid line. It is dashed. We simply cannot know about every moment of every life we research. There are always gaps as we step backwards in time. It is natural to wonder if all is right or if we missed discovering a pitfall because we happened to step over it.

History, of course, unfolds forward in time. Thinking about our results forward in time gives a new perspective on what seemed obvious as we stepped our way back. It is obvious that when tracing a married couple backwards, that they lived in roughly the same place before they married. After all, they met somehow. Find a couple after their marriage, and find their respective families before their marriage, and it may seem very sure that we have the right people. Think about it forward. Retrace those steps. Follow as their immigrant parents start from different places at different times, cross the ocean, and then find new traces of them in the New World as neighbors. It seems inevitable when working in one direction, of course it was that way, and yet it is a thrill when thinking in the other direction, when working forward, when it is far from a given that two people will end up in the same place, at the same time, and find them there, where you hadn’t seen them before. That is an epiphany.

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By Daniel Hubbard | June 28, 2015

I took another week off from blogging last week against my instincts, but it felt like the thing to do. My father’s fading came to an end. He passed away just before Father’s Day. I had thought I would have one last Father’s Day with him, but that was not to be. Of course, even if he had been aware of a visit, I know that he wouldn’t have remembered it, and even if he had remembered, he wouldn’t live long enough to think back upon it fondly. Some of the joy of celebrations comes from their transience, the fact that they can’t go on forever. Ironically part of the joy of transience comes with the time to remember. My father had no memory and as it turns out, no time either. It does remind me though that part of the joy of life, our own life, and the joy we find in others’ lives, comes from the fact that we know they cannot last.

I’d like to go back to a time to a few years ago, when my father still had memories and got some happiness from telling them to me.

March 6, 2011 Taking Walks with the Census Taker and my Dad

May 30, 2011 Interview with Dad

and March of this year, when his memory was fading but still good enough to know that there were things, like tuberculosis, that he did not want to remember.

Bye Dad…

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By Daniel Hubbard | June 14, 2015

It had been a long time since I have missed my regular weekly post, if I ever have, but last week I missed. There is a reason. Life, or rather the end of life, takes priority. Four and a half years ago, my father realized that his memory was just starting to fade and wrote his memories down before it was too late. Now, his memory is nearly gone, perhaps totally gone. Three days ago, I had what has become a typical conversation with him. He could not remember where he was or who was the nurse’s aid in his hospital room. He thanked me for visiting and was shocked when I mentioned that it was my fourth visit that day, but moments later he described a barn that his sister and brother-in-law had owned decades ago. I knew what he was talking about. Some of my childhood memories are of that barn. He asked a question he’d asked already ten times in the last hour then said that he’d be rich if he had a dime for every time he asked that question. He remembered forgetting.

That is the way it has been. One moment he couldn’t remember that his siblings have all passed away, the next moment he would remember an obscure and verifiable fact or mention how proud his father would be to know that my family and I live in the house that he built. A moment later he asked me where I lived. He looked at the whiteboard on the opposite wall, noticed the date and realized that he had just had a birthday. Yes, Dad, you have lived a long time. The next morning he recognized a niece who visited and called her by name. A bit later he knew that my mother and my sister entered the room. When I entered about half an hour later, he clearly knew that someone entered the room and I think he knew that it was me. I can’t be sure that he has been aware of my visits since.

A few weeks ago, after his last trip to the emergency room, he was tested by an occupational therapist. His memory was confirmed to be virtually gone, but his reasoning was still intact. He could count backwards from 100 by sevens faster than the therapist, but he couldn’t remember where he lived—functioning reason without the ability to remember what to reason about.

Preserving memories and reconstructing pasts is what I do. I have the nearly forty typed pages of his memories sitting on the desk next to me. How strange that I have them and he no longer does. I have my memories of him too, but soon, perhaps very soon, he will be gone. He cannot remember his past. His future has nearly run out.

Toward the end of a meeting with the hospice nurse two days ago, I got a message from my son. He had already pitched the first inning of his first playoff game. Would I be there soon? The nurse said something about the split we live with at times like these and said that I needed to go. So Dad, there is the future. It just sent me a text.

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