By Daniel Hubbard | May 19, 2013
Sometimes in genealogy, life gets in the way. Sad I know, but true. This will be a short post in honor of this week’s “living” a.k.a. flood recovery, a gas leak resulting in gutting the kitchen, two grade school band concerts, one little league practice, one soccer practice, one choir practice, one soccer game, four baseball games, a national honor society induction ceremony, a presentation (ok, that was actually genealogy), a birthday party for twins that are friends of my twins, finishing a book proof (ok, that was also genealogy but not the normal kind of activity)… a pediatrician visit… a session of Swedish school… Did I mention that we have friends we haven’t seen in a decade coming to visit from Europe in five days?…
I was watching my son’s little league team play. It was getting close to the time limit for the game and his team had been down by a lot and their comeback was great but falling short. The question was whether or not they could fit in one more inning. The decision was left up to the opposing team, the team that would win if they decided there was not time to fit in one more inning. The decision was made. Play one more. That leads to a question. What was the goal?
If the goal was to win, then it was a strange decision for a team with a lead to make. If the goal was to play the game, then it was not a strange decision at all. People usually want to win. Winning can be especially important, and losing especially hard to take, when you are ten years old but, of course you also want to play. Those two goals can be at odds with one another. The other team batted first and did not score but they were still up by 4 runs.
Research can have different goals too and they can be at odds with one another. Sometimes we research with a specific target in mind. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the best goal is to just see where things lead and enjoy the results.
Back at the Little League field, my son’s team went into their last at bats down 11 to 7. A few minutes later it was tied with the bases loaded. One more hit and they won 13 to 11. One team was ecstatic, the other not so much. What my son’s coach said to his team before they went out for the traditional friendly exchange of “nice game” with the other team was this. “Be extra respectful. They would have won if they had quit when they could have. Instead they wanted to play more.” That is what research should be like—keep going for the fun of it and be excited by wherever it leads you.
Now, you will have to excuse me. I need to check on the linoleum adhesive in the kitchen and then I’m off to Little League.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 12, 2013
A week or so ago and in a round-about way, I got a question about a memorial plaque found in the ceiling of an old house during renovation and it got me thinking about the things we find that tell a little story or present a little mystery about the the places where we live. Live in a place long enough and the stories and mysteries start to be part of your own past and archeology becomes genealogy.
When I was a child, I “helped” my next-door neighbor enlarge her garden. She also happened to be my aunt, so it was a bit of a family project. Just like the house where I lived, my grandfather had built hers but she thought that the things we found that day were older than her father. I don’t remember all of it but we did dig up some rotten leather straps, the remnants of some sort of harness was her guess. I got to keep a key. It was the old-fashioned kind with a metal loop at one end to take a keyring, a round shaft and a metal tab with teeth at the other that looked like a tattered flag blowing in the wind. It was the kind that a child associates with fairy tales and stories of castles and secret, locked passageways. It was so brown and pitted with corrosion that it looked like something carelessly whittled from a piece of wood. I already loved history and that key was my very own piece of history that I had dug from the ground myself. I kept it in my room for years. It always gave me the sense of the passing of time.
My aunt’s theory was that there had been a fence where we had dug. The land had once been part of a farm and nothing much had happened there between the time of the farm and the day my grandfather started to build our houses. Everything we took from the ground that day fell in a straight, very fence-like line. My aunt thought that they were the kinds of things that a farmer might have had, the kind of things a farmer might have left along a fence and lost or forgotten, so they built up there, a few things every so often falling down and sinking into the ground before anyone took notice. Until that is the day we dug them up, when they were no longer the things of every day life but the things of history. Those things and their context told us a little story that day and I became just a bit more hooked on history. I probably became a bit more hooked every time I looked at that key, hidden in my closet with my baseball cards and a broken arrowhead.
A year or two ago, when we renovated a few things in our basement, I found an old cabinet under the stairs. I knew it had been there but I was a bit surprised that it was still there. In the twenty plus years I had lived elsewhere many things had changed but apparently not that cabinet. It was also something that I remembered from childhood. Not because it was nice. It was a piece of junk by any standard except the does-the-door-close standard. In fact it was the door that had fascinated me as a kid. I never met my grandfather. He died long before I was born, but there was some of him on that cabinet door. It was covered in the kind of scribblings that a carpenter would make—triangles and squares with measurements written beside them, long strings of addition that were probably calculations of how much lumber a job would take, people’s names and phone numbers with far too few digits, or so they seemed to a kid who had never seen a phone number shorter than seven digits long. These numbers even had letters in them. They were clearly mysterious if you were young enough. When I looked at it again, I recognized some of the names. They were names that simply sounded like they came from my aunts’ and uncles’ stories about their childhood. They were names that belonged in a certain time and place.
This week, in order to replace a broken stove, we had to tear out the cabinets that my grandfather had built for the kitchen. The space where the flour bin had been when I was a kid had been repurposed into drawers but they were still the same cabinets and even if the stove hadn’t broken, those cabinets were well passed their prime. Behind them were two scraps of paper that had fallen down over the years. One was a survey that I should have turned in September of my freshman year of high school. The other was a receipt for a doctor visit that my mother had made at a time that makes me suspect that being pregnant with me was behind that appointment. It was somewhat odd to find that little scrap of evidence for my future existence.
Something my mother had told me that we would find was an old Formica countertop hidden under the oven. It was much lower than the other counters. Before my father installed the oven, and before I could remember, that spot had been my grandmother’s spot for kneading bread. My grandfather had built the cabinet and counter at just the right height to be easiest on her back. I could get a feeling for her stature just from looking at what had been built for her. It turns out that all my older cousins have memories of our grandmother standing there kneading away, but it was something I never knew.
When we lived in Sweden, I was always joking about the viking treasure that I claimed to be sure was buried in our yard. Sometimes the treasure is a rusty key, some jotted notes or an old receipt. Sometimes the family history is in a bit of cabinetry at a height that makes it mysterious, unless you know the secret.
By Daniel Hubbard | May 5, 2013
Words. They are the smallest unit of meaning. The documents we study, the stories we are told are built up of those units. Little bits of meaning are added to each other until some information is conveyed. To understand that information we need to understand the basic ingredients. Do we always know what those ingredients mean?
Foreign words are almost strange by definition. To a Frenchman, foreign words are étrange, related to the English word “strange.” To a German, they are ausländisch, related to the English word “outlandish,” i.e. from outside the country. The English word “foreign” simply means outdoors. Apparently in English you don’t need to be from very far away to be exotic, or perhaps this explains the outlandish things my children do in the backyard…
Obviously, if you encounter a document written in a foreign language you will be dealing with foreign words. Equally obviously, a bilingual dictionary is needed if you don’t know the language. Sometimes, depending on the zeitgeist, foreign words get thrown into documents. They might seem somehow familiar and give the reader a sense of deja vu without really being understood. That can present a problem. If you are reading a Polish document, there is no need to wonder about the language of the words. If you are reading a document in English and encounter a word that is definitely not English, your first task is to figure out what language is the source of the word. Even worse, if the handwriting is difficult, it might not be obvious at first that some of your problem is a word or two in a totally different language from the one you thought you were trying to decipher. Some of the most difficult Swedish I’ve ever read has turned out to be poorly written Latin.
Different specialties have different vocabularies. Many of the documents used in genealogy were created for legal reasons. Not surprisingly, legal terms crop up in those documents. Those terms often come from Latin (see above) or are terms that seem familiar yet turn out to have specific legal meanings that are not particularly close to the meaning that seems obvious. A law dictionary like Black’s might be necessary to understand what was meant.
Animal, Vegetable or Mineral
Words with geological and botanical meanings often occur in one specific type of document encountered by genealogists—land records using metes and bounds. The “metes,” the points used to specify the edges of the land being described, are usually either vegetable or mineral. You might not be familiar with the precise words used but they could tell you something about your ancestor’s land. Guides to rocks and trees and come in handy to tell you the meanings of those words.
Person, Place or Thing
People’s names often have meanings as part of their origins but those are not particularly useful for genealogy. Guessing that some Medieval ancestor was a blacksmith based on a more recent ancestor’s surname doesn’t really win you that much. On the other hand, meanings based on use can come in handy. In America someone who appears in the records as Benjamin Franklin Jones is probably not hiding clues to his ancestry in his given names. People are occasionally named for more obscure figures, now unknown. A series of first and middle names in my own ancestry may contain clues to a mystery. Checking those names lead me to the conclusion that at least one is probably not hiding a clue to anything other than the fact that at the time William Eaton was a famous soldier.
Place names are frequently a source of problems. A gazetteer might just give you the meaning of that mysterious place name.
Things would seem to be easily handled by dictionaries but there is one type of “thing” that that gives problems. If you look up the words you will never find the right meaning. Those words make up an idiom. Sometimes those words in an old letter that you aren’t even sure you are reading correctly, that don’t seem to make sense no matter how you slice and dice them, go together to form an idiom and the words carry no meaning on their own.
Time and Place
Words mean different things at different times. Some words mean one thing to us and something quite different to the long-ago person who wrote them down. I decided to write this post after hearing people’s amusement during a recent talk when a marriage record listed the bride as a nineteen-year-old spinster. When that record was made spinster was the female equivalent of bachelor, it simply meant that she had not been previously married. I wonder how many people have concluded that a female ancestor married late in life simply because she was listed as a spinster in a marriage record.
Place affects the meaning of words as well. Researching some letters written in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, I was puzzled by the constant references to shillings. This was long after Americans stopped using pounds, shillings and pence and replaced them with dollars an cents. A dictionary from 1850 informed me that shilling was still used in some parts of New York State and that it meant 1/8 of a dollar. That wasn’t a unit of currency that one could pull from one’s pocket but it was the way that people in that time and place thought of the value of things. Finding a dictionary from the right time that mentioned that place made it all clear.
Words come and go with time. They change meaning with time. Their set of meanings changes. You can think you understand a word only because it is still in use, still makes sense in context and might even have had the meaning you are thinking of as a possible meaning when it was written but what was meant was another meaning, a meaning that it no longer has. That can happen with dictionaries as well. Just because you find a word in a modern dictionary, doesn’t mean that the word has that meaning in the distinctly unmodern document you are studying. A dictionary, like the Oxford English Dictionary, that lists archaic words and definitions might be a much bigger help than a standard dictionary. A dictionary from as close as possible to the time the document was written might be an even bigger help. The closer the dictionary that you use is to the right time, right place and right specialty all at the same time, the better.
By Daniel Hubbard | April 27, 2013
I love to find little connections between families and history. Often people are sure that there is no “history” in their family. I think it would be a strange family indeed that was never involved in any historical events. Never impacted in a way worth noting, no one who ever signed a petition on some vital issue, volunteered for an army, been caused to migrate by some events far bigger than themselves. Once one uses a little imagination and extends that list, then counts up just how many ancestors one has a few generations back, it becomes vanishingly unlikely that no little bit of history can be identified that touched an ancestor or that no big historical phenomenon opened some paths for them while it closed others.
Other times people seem to feel the pull of the thought of being descended from someone famous. They become sure it is true without ever proving it to be true. Genealogy gives way to fantasy. We can end up with two blind spots. One blinds us to the need of looking at history at all because our ancestors were certainly not important. The other says that obtaining any hint that an important person was an ancestor is the same as proving that it is so
Genealogy is about getting the nitty gritty right. It is also about integrating all those proven details with the history that sits just below the surface, sprouts up between a baptism register here and a will over there, and occasionally flows like a torrent right over the top of our research. If the genealogy doesn’t fit the history, something needs to be explained or revised.
It is one of those torrents that brought me to this topic. If we restrict ourselves to just the nitty gritty, we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes the “forest” is no more than a small but fascinating grove that we need to study and account for. We can often manage to see those if we think about it. What about the truly vast forests? Usually, we won’t find our families there. Often if we do it is because we are wrong. We are following Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs into a forest of fantasy. Sometimes though the forest really is that big. Sometimes we find our ancestors not just at the edge of the forest but right in the middle of it. That torrent of history isn’t always something that just sweeps our ancestors downstream.
This week I’ve been researching one member of a family in early New England. He was clearly important but not surprisingly so. I found his family in London records. The were baptized, married and died just like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, this man’s slightly older brother turned up in an interesting book from 1750 called Notitia parliamentaria, listing Members of Parliament. That was exciting. History became that rushing torrent in this case because that brother was a member of the so-called Short and Long Parliaments. After ruling without Parliament for eleven years, Charles I found it necessary to call Parliament into session in order to have them vote him more revenue. Instead, they aired a long and ever lengthening list of grievances and accusations of the abuse of royal power. After only three weeks, Charles chose to stem the tide by dissolving Parliament. Six months later the king was forced to call Parliament again. This time they made sure that there would be no repeat of the previous session and voted to not disband until they themselves agreed to disband. Within a year and a half, Royalist and Parliamentarian forces were fighting what would be a nine year struggle called English Civil War. During those nine years,
- the flow of emigrants to New England stopped and then reversed as Puritans returned to England to fight for Parliament,
- the New Model Army purged Parliament of anyone with any thoughts of leniency toward Charles,
- the king was beheaded and
- England was declared a republic.
As a percentage of the population, it is still the bloodiest conflict in English history.
Sometimes our families really were part of a torrent of history. Sometimes they are even the ones found operating the floodgates.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | April 21, 2013
Flooding is a topic that has forced itself upon me this week. Two and a half times the normal rainfall for all of April in 20 hours is something that one notices, especially when the sump pump was already running. So what do floods have to do with genealogy?
1 Floods of information
I would think that this is the genealogists favorite form of flood. A discovery or chance meeting opens the proverbial floodgates. It is a wonderful sort of flood. Just remember to keep your head above water or once the flood has passed you by, you’ll need to try to figure out the origins of all the records that the flood waters left behind. There is no surer way to deflate ones sense of genealogical elation, than to realize you have no idea what you have, how you got it or how you were thinking when it was clear that it all fit together.
2 Ancestral Floods
There are lots of reasons that people do the things they do. Centuries later it is not always so easy to determine what those reasons were. In fact, often we need to consider ourselves lucky to know anything about what an ancestor did. Discovering the why can be cause for amazement.
Floods sometimes provide that “why.” One of my ancestors was the first settler in his little corner of Ohio. He arrived, found a convenient creek and built his cabin. There was no one there to tell him what that creek did in the spring. When summer changed to winter and then the thaw came, he found out. His cabin may have been simply flooded or actually washed away. Accounts vary. Either way he was not there the following spring.
3 Flood in the Courthouse
Those are not music to the genealogists ears. After years of try to find a mysterious ancestor, we finally discover the right place and take the step of approaching the holy of holies, the county courthouse. Filled with hope and awe we discover that the records we need were destroyed in a flood in 1927 and we are roughly 90 years too late. Time to investigate alternative records…
4 Flood in the Basement
In my case the basement flood was not too bad. It has been a lot of work but the damage is minimal. I didn’t have any genealogy books or papers hidden away down there. Some old college books were where they shouldn’t have been and now I get to test my skills at book salvage on such classics as Fundamentals of Philosophy, Thermal Physics, Numerical Analysis, Howard Anton’s Calculus and the complete scripts of Monty Python. That last one does hurt a bit so I hope my preservation efforts go well.
When I first started checking into caring for wet books I fully expected to find heated arguments over what to do and some really obviously terrible advice—microwaved Shakespeare anyone? Sadly, I didn’t find anyone recommending slamming a soaked book down on a table, opened to the middle and taking aim with a blow dryer set on scorch. The general gist of what I found is summed up in these steps:
- Soaked books- Don’t try to separate the pages. They will be too weak and because they will be stuck together, you might crack the spine. Stand the book up on something absorbent with the covers open slightly and let the water drain out.
- Wet books- Put plain paper towels (no printing) between every 20-30 pages. Too much extra material might strain the spine or warp the covers. Let the paper towels hang out so that the water they absorb can evaporate. If the towels become wet, change them.
- Damp books- Stand up with the pages fanned out. Make sure the air circulation around them is good.
- Almost dry books- Lay flat in as close to the proper shape of the book as possible. Put a weight on the book and wait as long as it takes to be completely dry.
Just proceed from one step to the next as the book dries. It also seems to be commonly recommended to put wet books in the freezer. This can accomplish two things. It can keep them from molding while you are busy with other cleanup or just busy drying other books. It can also freeze dry them. Putting the books in a freezer can allow the ice that will be produced to turn directly into vapor, a process called sublimation. This makes sense to me if the freezer is frost-free, otherwise, the better it works, the more ice will build up in the freezer.
Some people seem to confuse the two reasons for freezing. For simply storing the books until you can work on them, many people recommend putting them in zip-lock bags but then say that freezing has the extra benefit that it can dry the books. If the vapor is sealed into a bag with nowhere to go, I don’t think much drying will occur and what does occur will mean ice crystallizing in the bag.
Institutions do use industrial strength vacuum freezers to salvage books. How well this will work with the frost-free freezer that is part of my fridge remains to be seen, but the experiment has begun.
Luckily, I’m doing this more for the sake of the investigation than because any of my genealogy books or papers are involved. If some boxes of old books hadn’t taken a wrong turn the last time we moved, I wouldn’t even have my current test subjects. Which leads me to two rules of thumb.
- Keep papers and books far away from the basement floor.
- Keep them far away from the roof.
Positioning your successfully salvaged basement books directly below next year’s roof leak would be what is known in the preservation business as a “bummer.”
The other rules of thumb are:
- Scan or take digital photographs of invaluable papers.
- Once those are digitized, it is time to digitize the not so invaluable stuff.
- Back up the digitized versions.
- Back them up again.
- Keep a backup somewhere else. If a flood destroys your papers and a lightning strike fries your computer and your dog eats your backup disk because you are too freaked out by the flood and the lightning to feed him, you will be very happy to have a DVD or hard drive waiting far, far away in safety.
I’ve always enjoyed the mystery of a faded, damaged document. They look mysterious as if viewed through a veil that cannot be pulled aside. What does it have to tell me? How did it become the way it is? Why was it kept despite its condition? On the other hand, actually being able to read them is a whole lot better.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | April 14, 2013
I always like when I can connect my years as a scientist and my work as a genealogist. This week I got a bit of inspiration in that direction. I was reviewing some genealogy that was felt to be questionable. I have had to agree. There were a few key people who seemed wedged in where they did not belong. I could just stop here and discuss how the goal of genealogy is to find the right people, however few they might be, instead of gathering many people however wrong they might be, but I won’t stop here. I want to discuss chaos.
It is interesting to think about what happens in different situations when small changes are made. If a pitcher in a baseball game makes a mistake, it might mean that the ball ends up a few inches from where he intended. If pitching was part of a chaotic system, a small error in the way the ball left the pitcher’s hand might result in the ball doing a few crazy loops over the first baseman’s head before landing in a fan’s beer. How would genealogical research behave if a change is made to a birth date here or a surname there? Would it be a near miss or would a bystander get soaked in beer?
What is Chaos?
Chaos in this case is not total disorder and unpredictability, though that is a meaning for chaos. That is a pretty boring form of chaos. In mathematics and many sciences there are much more interesting versions of chaos called chaotic systems. They are not totally disordered or totally unpredictable but they are very different from how most of what we deal with behaves. If you want to drop a ball so that it bounces up to exactly three feet, you might try dropping it from four feet. It might bounce too high. Next time you might drop it from three and a half feet and it wouldn’t quite bounce high enough. Obviously next time you would want to try a height somewhere in between. You can do that because this is a situation where small changes to the starting point lead to small changes to the end point. The smaller the change you make to start with, the smaller the change you will make to the result. There is no sign of any behavior that anyone would call chaotic.
Some things behave very differently. It would probably surprise no one that the scientific concept of chaos was first discovered while working on weather prediction. A truly crude computer was running a very, very simple simulation of the weather. At some point it was rerun with numbers that it had produced part way through an earlier simulation. Had it been given exactly the same numbers it would have produced exactly the same result. The numbers weren’t the same. They were just very close. They were shortened a bit. By that I mean instead of putting in 0.654321, the number put in would have been 0.654. It was thought that this would be something like the difference between watching a ball bounce after rolling it off a three-foot table and rolling it off of a sheet of tissue paper on top of a three foot table. Yes, the starting point is different but not in any meaningful way.
What happened instead is that though at first the new results looked like the old ones, they rapidly became totally different. Howling north winds became light southern breezes. Chaos had been discovered.
Chaotic systems like weather, air turbulence, some parts of economics, etc. are very difficult when it comes to specific calculations. General predictions may be possible, climate models can work but exactly what the weather will be like more than a week from now is a very, very difficult problem. Predicting with precision when small changes do not balance out is not easy. A middle school student with a few history books can, in the space of an evening, get a rough idea of how a topic evolved over hundreds of years. There might be a near miss in understanding here and there but the gist will be right. Try a similar experiment with a genealogical problem involving poorly documented people and you won’t be able to say the same. Investigating is not easy when precision really matters and small errors can’t even out.
Chaos’s Big Three
There are three things that can be generally said about how chaotic systems change-
- The precise way you start makes a huge difference to where you end up.
- Different paths through the system can be very similar for a very long time and then suddenly do radically different things.
- Even starting points that are very far apart can, and eventually will, result in temporarily very similar situations.
Does anything in that list look familiar? In it’s own way, genealogical research is a chaotic system.
- There are often many different people who might fit while looking for a specific ancestor. As we research we intend to weed out the clearly wrong ones and study the near misses until we are sure that they do not fit. We want the correct starting point for the next step in our research. If, despite our best efforts, we chose incorrectly then we will take a path that isn’t “almost right” like that ball that fell from a fraction of an inch above three feet. We will wander off following a branch of the human family that is not actually ours.
- That wrong family might live in the same place as the right family for a generation or two or three. The people might do many of the same things. Their lives might be very similar. One more step back in time and one family’s immigration is discovered, as well as what their name was before it was Anglicized. The other family would have been found where they had been found before. Those families have suddenly diverged. Your path back through time no longer even resembles what it should have been.
- That research can converge on the same point from vastly different starting points is obvious in genealogy. To be human means to be related. It is not so odd that we discover tenth cousins twice removed that live half a world away. Sooner or later, every path will cross.
Genealogical research may show some of the signs of being a chaotic system but that simply means that you need to be sure of each step. With careful analysis you won’t take the wrong path or leave any spectators soaked in beer.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | April 7, 2013
Checking sources can be an oddly enjoyable pastime. At least I think so. That is, I both enjoy it and admit that it might be somewhat odd to enjoy it. I think what lies behind a statement is often even more fascinating than the statement itself. Every conclusion has a story behind it, a sort of “metagenealogy,” that is expressed in the sources themselves and what they have to say on their own and in the way the sources were fit together to support the conclusion.
Hopefully everyone who spends any time doing research learns the value of keeping track of sources. There are a whole host of practical reasons to keep track of your sources and cite them. There is also this almost artistic reason, this metagenealogy. There are many things that can make genealogy more interesting. Filling in the details of the lives you’ve uncovered is probably the first thing that comes to mind. The ballet the sources need to perform to reach a conclusion is another. The genealogist that explains their reasoning and cites their sources is a sort of choreographer that lets the rest of us see that ballet.
Sometimes the curtain never goes up and we never get to see what lies behind. There is no logic to follow. There are no sources to check. We simply learn of the final result and are left to stare at the unopened curtain.
Too often, I find that the curtain goes up and the scenery is nice but the performers never take the stage. The audience members are left scratching their heads. A claim is made and sources are given and yet checking the sources shows that they do not actually support the claim. Are you missing something? Maybe not. Somewhere in between a full discussion of the sources and making unsupported statements is a middle ground. Sources are cited but don’t and in fact, given their type almost never could, support the claim. They might be good things to check. It might be good to know that they don’t contradict the claim but they don’t actually support the claim either. Those sources simply pertain to the claim. They aren’t irrelevant, but they don’t perform the implied dance either. They are the stage hands busy doing their jobs for a performance that never begins.
To truly grasp a genealogy, to get the most out of it and find the interesting things that lie behind it, one needs to take a seat and watch the dance. Seeing the open curtain and glancing at the scenery then concluding that a ballet had been performed there doesn’t work and it isn’t very interesting either. After all, you buy a ticket to watch the dance.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | April 1, 2013
In honor of April Fools’ Day, I thought I might throw out some genealogical trick questions. See how you do.
- Is it legal in Virginia for a man to marry his widow’s sister?
- How many birthdays does the average man have? The average woman?
- Do they have a fourth of July in England?
- Can a woman living in Denver, Colorado be buried east of the Mississippi?
- A genealogist traced herself back to the Mayflower and she was horrified. Why?
- A father with a large landed estate was writing his will in a jurisdiction where land was always inherited by primogeniture. How much of the land did the first son get at that time?
- Some months have 30 days. Some months have 31 days. How many months have 28 days?
- You prove your descent from a soldier who charged the heights during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Is that enough to join the DAR/SAR?
- In Puritan communities, how much dirt was there traditionally supposed to be in an open grave?
- A man of Irish extraction lived in the same part of Connecticut his whole life and was a U.S. citizen when he died but you can’t find him in local naturalization records. Why not?
- No, dead men can’t marry.
- The average man and the average woman have one birthday, though they may celebrate it many times.
- Yes, they also have the first, second, third, fifth…
- No, because she is still alive.
- She would have felt much better about tracing herself back to a passenger.
- Nothing. The father was still writing.
- Twelve, all months have 28 days.
- No, the British were the ones who charged the heights.
- If he lived in Connecticut his whole life, he didn’t need to naturalize.
By Daniel Hubbard | March 24, 2013
One of the most common analogies for what genealogists do involves jigsaw puzzles. We say that we find the pieces and carefully fit them together to prove facts about people’s lives and the relationships between ancestors. Sometimes we even throw in the nasty little fact that the pieces that we find might not all belong to our puzzle. They are red herrings that don’t belong. It is as if many puzzles had their pieces dumped together into one enormous box. We can have educated guesses that the pieces we want will be found mostly in one specific corner of the box and toward the bottom. Some though will be in other places and some pieces that we find in “our corner” will be to a different puzzle altogether.
Those images may help people to imagine what is involved in research but I don’t think that they are quite right. Puzzle pieces fit together because pieces contain tabs that fit into blanks on other pieces. Genealogy rarely works that way. A family with births in 1760, ’62, ’64, ’68, ’70 and ’72 might be said to have a blank that could accept the tab provided by an adult found in later records. An adult who bore the same surname, came from the same place and was born in 1766. Even then, it isn’t proven just because it fits. It is a hypothesis.
A Better Analogy
Perhaps there is a better analogy—putting together a panorama from snapshots. To take a collection of photographic prints and assemble them into a panorama requires recognizing where different photos overlap. That is, for two snapshots to go together and properly align, there has to be a significant amount of information that is the same on both. How do we know that two documents concern the same person? Is the name being the same enough? Almost never. Usually more information is needed. Locations need to be the same or at least close, ages have to be what is expected, army units need to match, land ownership needs to coincide… There has to be enough overlap to say that the two documents go together. It is the overlap that counts, not that the information missing from one document is filled in by the other. The overlap helps to reinforce the correctness of the overlapping information and the rest is new information might some day help to connect with a new document that has yet to be discovered.
There is another thing that I like about this analogy. For a jigsaw puzzle to be completed, every piece needs to fit perfectly. A panorama built up from separate photographs is never perfect. There will be slight misalignments, differences in exposure, variations in color balance and other small problems. These problems are inevitable. The photographs can obviously fit together and yet look not quite right. These are the kinds of problems that are almost always faced when assembling a family history. Looking at the big picture shows that it fits but where document joins document perfection is rarely achieved. Ages can be wrong, names altered and occupations suddenly changed. Such things can and should be explained, but they will never go away.
Back in the days when I took photographs with film, I took a few panoramas by gradually snapping picture after picture as I slowly moved the camera through the landscape. Sometimes there was the suspicion that they weren’t going to overlap properly. Then I would take extra pictures to try to fill in the suspected gaps. Sometimes I might think that I had subtly changed perspective during the process and might need to take another batch of pictures, just to make sure.
Once they were developed, it was time to spread the photographs out on the table and try to figure out how they might be pieced together. Sometimes the perspective would be too different and photos that looked like they might overlap only showed a strange and warped countryside, as if viewed reflected in a carnival mirror. Then it was time to hope that a different choice of pictures would overlap well and extend the panorama in a way that pleased the eye instead of baffling the brain.
Sometimes genealogy gives me that same feeling. It almost looks right but the people and relationships that make up the genealogical landscape are warped just like the faulty panorama. Documents seem to overlap, but really don’t and the reconstructed landscape of ancestors and relatives heads off in a direction it never really went. Change some documents, get better overlap, and you can take away the carnival mirror.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | March 17, 2013
I remember hearing a story years ago of a man who sat in an archive, in Spain or perhaps Portugal, sniffing documents. He was trying to detect the subtle, lingering sent of vinegar. Why? Long ago people attempted to prevent the spread of disease by sprinkling mail with vinegar. A letter might claim “we are all well here” but if its smell had that hint of sharpness, someone knew, or at least suspected, otherwise.
Records can supply genealogical information in many ways. Usually we don’t need to smell them to extract that information. What we normally do is read the contents. The contents of a document generally supply most of the information, but that document also has a context. Sometimes we forget to consider the context. Other times we might use both contents and context without thinking about it. What information comes from the contents of the document and what information comes from the context? Thinking about that question can solve problems.
A Move that Wasn’t
I’ve gotten to the point where I know a family that I am tracing fairly well. I have all sorts of documents that pinpoint their location at various times, often only months apart. Early on, I had found them in the Kansas state census in 1915. It was an interesting hint about the instability of this family’s living situation. I found them fairly far from where I expected and they could not have remained there for very long. It might have been the kind of move made by someone struggling to find work.
As I worked on the family, gradually, while collecting other documents, that 1915 location was becoming stranger and stranger. When I stopped to look at the big picture, that 1915 location started to seem impossible. Even if they hadn’t been there on the official census day and had only been caught by the enumerator later, it just didn’t seem to fit. I decided to look at that state census again. There they were. Exactly were they were supposed to be and yet where they really couldn’t have been.
The answer to the problem is probably contained in contents versus context. I looked at the contents of the document. There were the names, the ages, the birthplaces—everything that one needs to declare a perfect match. There was something missing though—the place. This census page did not itself have the place written on it. Neither did the previous page. In fact none of the pages I examined had the place where the enumeration occurred written on them. The place could only come from the context not the contents. Context can change. I looked for evidence that the context in which I found this document might be wrong.
I found that evidence. First when I checked how many pages supposedly filled with name after name by one tiny little place, it was suspiciously large, as if many pages were swallowed by a context that was really much too small to hold them. Then I started to check names that seemed easy to read and unusual enough that they should be easy to find without any ambiguity. Where were those people in 1910 and 1920? They were all somewhere else in 1910 and in the very same somewhere-else in 1920. That somewhere-else happened to be where I would expect to have found my family on March 1, 1915 and were I am now reasonably sure they were all along.
They didn’t move. Their census pages did the moving. The contents were found residing within the wrong context.
When information comes from context not contents, beware of altered context.Twitter It!
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