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Input and Output

By Daniel Hubbard | October 22, 2017

Genealogy is based on information. No information, no genealogy. The ancestors are still there, but without information, they have faded to invisibility.

We use whatever information we can find to take the next step and build up our knowledge of our ancestors, of our personal past. Sometimes it is not too difficult to piece together the information we find. The documents are there, the DNA matches, and we can reason out the links from statement to statement, document to document, person to person. At some point we can feel confident that we have gone from simple information to knowledge.

Is reaching knowledge enough? For many ancestors, the hazy ones we can barely discern, we are doing well to get that far. For others, knowledge is not so difficult but that knowledge is still sketchy. For others, there is another step that can be taken. We can try to reach understanding.

Understanding is when we can do more than find dates and plot residences on a map. It is when we can extrapolate to thoughts, personalities, and minds. It is when we can see why choices were made, even when we would have chosen otherwise. We understand when cultures, customs, ways of being that are alien to us make sense as environments—maybe not for us, but for our forebears. Perhaps the personality we begin to glimpse seems to fit within its time and place, perhaps it doesn’t. If it doesn’t fit, that may help us understand a difficult life. Sometimes understanding even means that despite what we thought originally, we would in fact, had we worn their shoes, have chosen the same.

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By Daniel Hubbard | October 1, 2017

It has been ages since I have posted. As we must remember when we think about our ancestors, sometimes life gets in the way—not just for us as researchers, but for the people we research. Sometimes their lives were simply filled with events, some probably good, some probably bad, that left no records behind and kept them from doing anything that would leave a trace.

When my dad passed away, I knew I would take a break from blogging, not necessarily stopping, but not worrying about doing it regularly. One can break a good habit as well as a bad habit, I’ve learned. Sometimes the distractions from blogging have been good things, but often things that I could have done without. This summer, I thought I’d start blogging again, only to learn the hard way what happens when nearly 2 trillion gallons of rain fall on a relatively small area over the space of a few hours. If I remember right it was four times our normal July rainfall in just six hours. The cleanup from that is still a work in progress. When you live in one of the flatter parts of the world and you see water squirting up out of the middles of roads hours after the rain stops and have neighbors tell you in disbelief about the wall of water that smashed their basement windows or the sewage geysers that erupted from their drains, it is not good. The day I was to do an interview with a local NBC station, I was happy to find a bridge that was open. I was less happy to find that the traffic I saw coming toward me on the other side of the bridge consisted of a flotilla of picnic tables. Time to reroute. The day in August that the family decided to take a day and go hiking to get away from hauling up ruined appliances and mopping and sterilizing floors was to be my return to blogging as well. However, the altercation between my skull and a boulder was unplanned. Officially it ended in a tie, since neither the bolder nor my skull actually cracked but I don’t remember seeing it in the emergency room with me.

Ancestral Footsteps

Fort Winnebago Surgeons’ Quarters

The reason that I thought I would return to blogging after that ill-fated hike has to do with where we went before hiking. One of the joys of genealogy is when we can start breaking down the wall of time, and our knowledge of an ancestor’s life just gets richer and richer, with no end in sight. One of my ancestors who fits that mold fits it so well, that over the years I have slowly been visiting the places that were along his journey. After visiting Fort Winnebago, only the most far flung remain.

In some sense, it is not true, even now, that I have visited Fort Winnebago. The fort was destroyed by fire in 1856. The site remains, but the fort itself has been gone for a century and a half. In a way, that is even better for me. When my ancestor arrived there in 1828, the fort did not yet exist, one of those facts we reconstruct only to be presented with a deeper mystery. Yet that mystery too has its explanation, though it took years to sort it out. A mystery may be a sign that we have something wrong. It may also be an invitation to deeper understanding.

As you may be able to read in the sign in front of the surgeons’ quarters, it was built well before the fort. It was, in fact, built for a totally different reason and then eventually sold to the army. When my great-great-great-grandfather and his family arrived, they probably stood at the spot where I stood to take this picture, because it was the only building that existed and this was the route to the door.

My ancestors paused here until the spring of 1829. By then much had changed. Soldiers had arrived and the fort was at least partly built. My ancestor, an ex-soldier, who had had a hand in building forts before, was almost certainly involved somehow. His stay there, and the likely motivation for it, form a link in my chain of interlocking puzzle pieces that are what I know of his life. Though I would have loved to have seen a building he might have had a hand in constructing, it somehow felt fitting that all that remains of what he would have known there is the one building that he and his family would have seen as they emerged from the forest during the late summer of 1828.

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The Chicago Cubs and Deep Time, Version 2

By Daniel Hubbard | November 2, 2016

1906_Chicago_CubsThis is an odd time of year for any fan of the Chicago Cubs. November is the time to consider who should be traded, wonder if there is hope for next year, wonder if they will ever return to the World Series, and generally think off season type thoughts. Yet, somehow this year there is one precious game still to be played.

I never met any of my great-grandparents. Of course, as a genealogist, it isn’t so surprising that I know a great deal about them. I know for example that one of my great-grandfathers was a Cubs fan. My mother has told me that she remembers him listening to games on his radio. The Cubs were founded as the Chicago White Stockings in 1870, when my great-grandfather was only a few months old. They joined the new National League in 1876 and won the first league pennant behind a starting pitcher who won 47 games and a batter with a 429 average. Those numbers alone tell any baseball fan that it was a very, very long time ago. Today a pitcher that wins 20 is rare and a batting average one hundred points lower would be remarkable. In the first ten years of the league, Chicago won the pennant six times. Perhaps that is when my great-grandfather became a fan.

The turn of the last century brought the somewhat ominously named “dead ball era” when hits were few and runs were hard to come-by. I certainly hope that my great-grandfather was a fan by then. Supposedly the Chicago Colts, as they were then known, had so many young players, that they got the nickname “Cubs.” Their star pitcher was the aptly nicknamed Mordecai “three finger” Brown. Their double play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” is still remembered, even if people don’t know who they were or even for what team they played. In 1906 the Cubs won 116 games, and recorded the highest winning percentage ever for a major league baseball team by winning over 76% of the time. In 1907 they won the fourth ever World Series, and they won again in 1908, and have not managed to win the World Series since. Until this year, they hadn’t even been in the World Series since 1945. The longest championship drought in professional sports currently stands at 108 years.

Perhaps the length of that drought is where some of my genealogist’s appreciation of deep time originates. Most people think in terms of years, or perhaps, decades. Cub fans and genealogists must think in terms of centuries. Outside Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs, is a sign giving the year according to the “Anno Catulorum,” the Year of the Cubs. Yes, the Cubs have their own, unofficial, calendar system. You have to have been around a very long time for that. Two digits give the number of years since winning their division, 2 digits give the number of years since winning the pennant (the league championship), and three digits for the number of years since winning the World Series. We have reached AC0000108. Few fans can remember a time when the pennant digits would have been 00. No one is known to be alive who would have considered themselves a fan when all the digits would have been zero.


When a team goes 108 years without winning a championship, legends grow up; family stories, if you will. There is the supposed “Curse of the Billy Goat” and the story of the black cat than ran across the field in 1969 to name but two. It does make you think about what continuity means. It is true that the legal entity that is the Chicago National League baseball franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 but what does that really mean? As we try to reconstruct the identities of our ancestors, in what sense were they the same people in old age that they were in youth? What  common thread stretches back through generations of a family?

People have said for years “The Cubs will never win” based on their history of not winning. Yet at some point that history has to become meaningless. Players might play for a bit more than a decade, but often not with the same team. Managers and coaches might be around for about that long but often shorter. Owners are fewer, but none lasts more than a few decades. Wrigley Field seems eternal, but it has changed over the years and wasn’t even where they Cubs played 108 years ago. What remains are the stories—Tinker to Evers to Chance, Gabby Hartnett’s “Homer in the Gloamin,'” and, of course, the Billy Goat. What remains are the traditions—singing “Go, Cubs, Go” after a win, singing “Take Me out to the Ball Game” done at every home game since 1982, flying the “W” flag, flown after every Cubs win at Wrigley Field since 1937.

It seems much the same as the continuity of a family. The surname might stay the same, but the members change. The continuity comes from what is inherited: a name, some DNA, perhaps some property, but mostly those stories and traditions. The continuity is perhaps something we achieve ourselves. The stories and traditions are from the past. Keeping them alive, keeping them meaningful, even giving them meaning, are things for the present.

Well, great-grandpa, as I write this, the Cubs have re-earned their nickname with very young players. They’ve robbed that Curse of the Billy Goat story of its meaning. They have one game left to play. One way or another, the result will add to the Cubs family stories. We’ll see how it goes, you and I. These passed 108 years started with the Tinker to Evers to Chance of your day. Maybe it will end  with Russell to Baez to Rizzo, and with Anno Catulorum 0000000…

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You Never Know What You Will Find

By Daniel Hubbard | October 9, 2016

More than 160 years ago, a young mother gave birth to a daughter. The birth record gave a rough idea of where the family lived, but no more.

More than 160 years ago, a young mother-to-be checked into a maternity clinic.  The journals still exist. I’ve never used one before, but you never know what you will find. I found that journal record was made for her. It recorded when she went into labor and how long it lasted. It gave some very intimate details. Details it seems strange to think that one can learn after so many years. It also recorded the name of the neighborhood where she lived. She was also asked her what turned out to be a magic question, “When did you move to this city?” That was enough to track the family down.

More than 130 years ago, a young, unwed mother-to-be checked checked into a maternity clinic, just as her own mother had done 27 years before. No journal seems to exist in her case, but the clinic’s birth register shows the birth of her own daughter. No father’s name was given.

More than 125 years ago, a young single mother, with a four-year-old, out-of-wedlock daughter, got married. The marriage record was intriguing. The banns were clear. At the bottom of the page down in the margin was written “The above named couple has acknowledged that together, they begot the child named Hilda.” Mysteries solved. You never know what you will find.

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Read Herrings

By Daniel Hubbard | September 11, 2016

There is a story, apparently first told about 1800, that kippers could be used to throw hounds off the scent. Kippers are a sort of preserved herring. The preservation process can turn the fish reddish. An idiom was born.
In genealogy we often deal with things we think of as facts. Often the fact is not so much what was stated but that it was stated.

Nothing shows this like when we need to deal with “facts” which are contradictory. A person can’t have been born in two different places but the “facts” I’d read on the man I was hunting were just that. As seems to be  standard in these circumstances, neither of those places actually exists. I had some ages that implied a few different birth years and a birth date from an obituary. The only other fact I had to deal with was that long after he immigrated as a boy, his widowed mother joined him in America and appeared in a census with him.

When he was not found in Germany where expected, and American records produced only limited clues, I thought perhaps his mother might be the key. Researching her turned up nothing more. Not one single thing. Eventually, going parish to parish in the area of Germany that most closely matched the statements about his origins turned up a birth in a parish with a name similar to the name of one of those none existent places. Everything was a match except for the mother. Her name was not quite right. As I uncovered births of her children farther and farther back in time, it became clear that she was far to old to have been the “mother” recorded in the census. A problem? No, the woman in the census was a red herring, unless, of course, I ever want to research his mother-in-law, because it looks like that is who she was.

One of the most important things to realize in genealogy is that there will be red herrings. They are a part of every genealogists diet. They need to be recognized and explained, but they don’t need to be believed. You can’t let them through you off the scent.

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The Curse of the Goal

By Daniel Hubbard | July 24, 2016

sistine_chapelA little while ago I was on my first vacation in years. Many puzzle pieces fit together and my family and I went back to Europe. In Rome we went to see the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is a part of the Vatican Museum, one of the world’s truly great museums. It would be hard to deny that it is the museum’s crown jewel, but I also could not help but feel that it was something of a curse. It so dominated visitors’ thoughts that some of the finest objects of world culture were, at best, brief distractions as a crush of single-minded humanity flowed toward the chapel. There were few if any chances to pause and reflect on amazing things from the past. After waiting many hours in 95 degree heat in order to get in just before the museum closed, it is hard to deny that there was some sense to that rushing river of humanity. I can’t help though but be saddened at the thought of all that was missed as we moved as fast as we could, shoulder to shoulder, toward the one and only goal.

Genealogy can be like that, but it shouldn’t be. There is nothing wrong with having a goal, in fact it is generally a good thing—if it is the right sort of goal. Finding the home village of an elusive immigrant ancestor is a fine goal. Testing the truth of the family story that has had you intrigued for years is a fine goal. We often go into research with a single goal. It can give us focus, but it can also blind us. The more distant the goal is from where we are in our research, the greater the temptation to forge on, full steam ahead, instead of enjoying the farmers and millers, the saints and the scoundrels that we would encounter along the way, if we only took the time. Research should be thorough to be as sure as possible that it is correct, but there is more to it than that. Whatever you might consider the crown jewel of your genealogy to be, a Mayflower passenger, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, or an officer at Waterloo, all those men and women in between have lives and stories worth understanding. Genealogy can be like traveling, it isn’t just the destination that counts, there is also the journey that takes us there. You don’t want to finally reach your Sistine Chapel, look back, and realize that you have no idea how you got there, or what you might have missed along the way.

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When Relatives “Turn up”

By Daniel Hubbard | July 4, 2016

Sometimes when people are getting started in genealogy, they don’t think about the possibility that relatives can turn up in places where they aren’t expected. One very famous American lady was an immigrant from France, born in the 1880s. My family recently paid a visit to her slightly younger sister, who still lives in Paris.statue_of_liberty_paris

The family resemblance is striking, something genealogists often look for in old family photographs. She isn’t nearly as tall as her sister and unlike her sister’s tablet, which reads “July 4, 1776,” hers reads “IV Juillet 1776 = XIV Juillet 1789” to commemorate both the American and French Revolutions, and the connections between them.

It all goes to show, that you never know where relatives might turn up and knowing a bit of history can give you hints about how and why a family might be more spread than you might otherwise expect.

So, Happy 4th and 14th of July!

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Just One Word

By Daniel Hubbard | June 5, 2016

I’m always skeptical of connections to the famous, the powerful, and the high-born, but a current project in Tudor England is starting to smell suspicious. The family name matches the name of a village. In that village lived a noble family of the same name. In the parish church remains of this family include medieval knights’ effigies laid on top of their tombs. There is nothing there on which to base a conclusion, especially when the family I’m researching lived at the other end of England from that village.

Yet the name is fairly unique and this family had money. Lots of money. Will after will makes that clear. When a good deal of a man’s will has to do with how much gold his various relations should get, he is not a normal man. When a family appears in the records of the Court of Star Chamber, it is not a normal family. The family was gentry. The family had money, but at least so far their origins are a mystery.

A few days ago I turned up a little clue, and a reminder that every word has the potential to tell a story. The clue is single word in one of the wills, “pottinger,” a sort of kitchen vessel. As far as I have been able to tell, it is a word that doesn’t belong in a will written in southern England. It belongs in the far north. Why would a man in the south use that word? Perhaps it is a clue that his family, and perhaps even that artifact, had come from the north, perhaps from a little village that shares their name. Perhaps…

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The Psychology of Ancestors

By Daniel Hubbard | May 15, 2016

Mother’s Day has passed and Father’s Day will soon be upon us. Though we don’t tend to think of parents as ancestors, technically they are. How far back does a person need to be to be thought of as an ancestor? Grandparent does not seem far enough back. If Mother’s Day and Father’s Day exist to celebrate the bonds we feel to our parents then perhaps the existence of Grandparents’ Day is a sign that they are also too close to us to be considered to be ancestors.

Maybe this is why some beginning genealogists have trouble with the statement “Start with yourself.” The response is sometimes along the lines of “But I know about myself and my parents and my grandparents.” Are they really saying that they want to learn about their ancestors not just any person from whom they descend?

200px-Hungarian_Immigrants_ClevelandWhat about great-grandparents? Is that far enough? Can a little math give us the answer? If the average length of a generation is thirty years and the upper edge of the human lifespan is about one hundred years, then it starts to look like great-grandparents ought to be thought of as ancestors. The average generation puts great-grandparents at the age of ninety when great-grandchildren are born. Add another ten years for that great-grandchild to get to know a person they probably don’t see very often, and it becomes easy to see that the odds are stacked against getting to know a great-grandparent.

Is it a more personal matter? Do we think of people as ancestors only if we lack personal knowledge of them? Maybe, but I knew two of my grandparents well, never met one and the fourth died before I was three. None of my grandparents feel like ancestors. Maybe we think of people as ancestors only if we lack personal knowledge of anyone in our pedigree from their generation. What if I had known one or two great-grandparents well? Would I have trouble thinking of that whole generation as ancestors because of the psychological distance that word seems to force, but that personal knowledge makes impossible? If instead that whole class of people is beyond the bounds of memory, then perhaps they become ancestors in our minds.

A few years ago I wrote a post about the psychology of “The Old Country.” It is a bit different. We can extend the concept of ancestor as far back in time as we care to go, but the old country seems to exist only in personal or well transmitted and internalized memory. Time eventually brings any family’s concept of the old country to an end. Another thing I suspect brings that concept to an end is dilution. Too many ancestral countries, and the old country is diluted away. Not so with ancestors. In fact, I wonder if that is also part of the psychological basis for thinking of someone as an ancestor. Perhaps dilution plays a role in creating that psychological distance. We have trouble thinking of parents as ancestors. We have only two. Each one is too central. We have trouble thinking of grandparents as ancestors. We have only four. Double that number again, dilute down to each person in that generation being only one of eight great-grandparents and maybe it feels different. Dilution down to one eighth of their generation may be enough. They are no longer the main ingredients of the recipe, but spices that blend to improve taste, but whose distinct flavor is too subtle to detect.

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Spring Cleaning

By Daniel Hubbard | May 2, 2016

Spring is here and with it, the time for spring cleaning. No one really knows the origin of the tradition. It might be purely practical. In March and April in Europe and North America, there tends to be a time when it is warm enough to really open up the house and get the dust out, but too early in the season for the result to be a house crawling with bugs. Warmer weather also meant that fireplaces, coal furnaces, whale oil lamps… would be used less, and so it was a good time to clean off all the associated soot and grime from the winter. It might be that the tradition of spring cleaning originated in the Jewish custom of cleaning thoroughly before Passover to banish any speck of leavened bread. Perhaps it traces its origins to an ancient Persian custom, still practiced in Iran. Persian “house shaking” is a cleaning ritual practiced in the run up to Iranian New Year, which falls on the vernal equinox, March 21. In China, there is also a tradition of cleaning the house for the new year. Though Chinese New Year occurs well before what I would think of as spring, it is traditionally considered to mark the end of winter.

Whatever the reason we spring clean, it could be a good idea to extend the tradition to our genealogy. It even feels right to extend an old, and perhaps quaint, tradition to help us with out own studies of our past. Take the time to clean out those people we included in our family trees that we are now pretty sure should not be there. If “oopsie ancestors” tend to accumulate in your database like dust bunnies under a teenagers bed, take the time to sweep them away. Dust off those stacks of papers that got shoved aside and are now half forgotten. Go through them, put them in order, and best of all use them. What is in that folder on your computer’s desktop named “genealogy stuff 2011”? spring 2016 might be a good time to find out. There just might be some soot and grime in there.

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