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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 to 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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By Daniel Hubbard | April 24, 2016

You’ve probably heard that sometimes things don’t work out the way you want. That is true in general, and it is certainly true in genealogy. If we want to know what really happened, then one skill that genealogists need to develop is the handling of disappointment.

The last few days I’ve been trying to find living descendants of a soldier from WWI. I’ve read his letters, held his Victory Medal, and I know that after returning from the war he married and had two children, a son and then a daughter. I also knew that he’d been gassed during his time at the front. Perhaps his lungs never really recovered. Not long after the birth of his daughter he died of a lung ailment.

I knew nothing else. I knew his wife’s name but couldn’t find any record of her. I still don’t know how they met. They lived several states apart as far as I can determine. Nevertheless, now I’ve found her.

Inching Forward

She was born in 1901. Her parents married about 1899, but were living apart by 1905 and received their divorce in 1910. Her mother remarried in 1912. Knowing about the remarriage, in 1920 I found her with her stepfather’s name. In 1930 I found her widowed with her children, and with her married name badly misspelled. She was back with her mother and stepfather.

That is the last time I find her son. It is the last time I find her, until her obituary lists her survivors as a daughter and a grandson. Her daughter’s obituary lists a son who only outlived his grandmother by a few weeks. At the end it reads “Survivors: none.”

There are no descendants who will excitedly read his letters. There will be no great-grandchildren thrilled to hold that nearly century old medal, or to try on his cap.

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Putting the Chart before the Source

By Daniel Hubbard | April 10, 2016

Genealogy is certainly all about people. As we research we try to find out what we can about ancestors, their relatives, and sometimes even their whole communities. It is easy to forget that those people, and the relationships that connect them, are not the starting points for our research, but the results. Except for those few relatives that are contemporary, or nearly so, we don’t start with people. We can’t. We start with documents and DNA, grave markers, memorial plaques, paper, microfilm and image files, photographs and heirlooms. We start with evidence, not pedigrees, otherwise we are guilty of putting the chart before the source.


In wagon driving, the cart doesn’t go before the horse. In genealogy the chart doesn’t come before the source.

That thought, “Don’t put the chart before the source,” occurs to me whenever I hear someone say that they have roughly fifty gajillion people in their database. We’d probably be better off without genealogical bragging, but if it is going to exist, why can’t it be something more along the lines of “I have eleven hundred well-analyzed original sources of primary information in my database.”? Sources, like horses, go first.

Sometimes, out of necessity, I find myself using software that requires, for example, a person be added to a tree before any work can really be done. What if there is a real question about a person’s identity? What if a source is relevant to many people via a complex rationale that does not generate a series of neat facts that can be expressed in a dozen words or less? When there is no hard work to be done, no load to be hauled, the cart can go before the horse, but the challenge and fun of research is when there are tough puzzles to solve, then one just can’t get away with putting the chart before the source.

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Out of Focus Genealogy

By Daniel Hubbard | March 20, 2016

A roll of microfilm arrived for me the other day. That is hardly unusual. I really wanted to look at it. Not so unusual either. With a tiny little bit of time, I put the reel on the machine, forwarded it a bit, brought the image in to focus, and guessed where in the reel the item I was looking for might be. I knew pretty well were it should be, and with a motorized machine, it is pretty quick to zip though a film. I took my finger off the forward button. Not quite the right spot but only three frames off. The thought that this might just be the genealogist’s equivalent of archery came to me, and I save some time with a near bull’s-eye. The information I wanted was where I thought it ought to be. I quick press of the scan button, and I had what I wanted on my memory stick. Rewind, return and done.

It sounds good. Focus on what you are looking for, find it, and move on. The problem though, is that though being focused is definitely the way to be as sure as possible of finding what one wants, (there was, after all, a specific reason I had ordered the film) it isn’t the only thing to do. If one can be focused, on can be unfocused too. A few days later, I took another look at that reel for no particular reason except that it might have more information for me.

Researching out of Focus

I found that one man I was interested in owned a boy named Bob, and that the court judged Bob to be nine. I got to wonder what had become of Bob, and what kind of life that enslaved boy led.

To focus or not to focus?

To focus or not to focus?

I found wife number 3, suing the son of wife number 1, the guardian of a son of wife number 2.  Going back in time, I found all the children of wife number 1 suing their father over an inheritance that they were to have gotten from their maternal grandfather when their mother died. Their grandfather had disliked their father and their grandfather’s will made sure that their father was to get nothing, but their father had kept it anyway when his wife died. Their father died about two years after the children sued him. Not so surprisingly, he left nothing to his children by wife number 1. I got to wondering, just why we think modern families are complicated?

There were other interesting things as well. It is a good thing to focus on the goal, the original reason for searching among a set of records is likely to be important. Nevertheless, once the focused work is done, it can be just as good to do some out of focus genealogy. If a set of records have one thing for you, it may have many others. Less obvious, perhaps, but it might not be a good idea to be that they are less important. Every find adds to the pictures we have of our ancestors. Maybe out of focus is the wrong analogy. Those pictures we create of our ancestors don’t become unfocused just because we take a wider look. Maybe a better analogy would be taking the portrait lens off of our camera, putting on a wide angle lens, and making sure we get the whole scene.

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A Surprised Genealogist in Mathmagic Land

By Daniel Hubbard | February 28, 2016

It has been a while since I mixed mathematics and genealogy. It feels like time to do that again.

Genealogy is all about information. We gather information and use it to figure out information about ancestors and relatives. There is a branch of engineering and mathematics that is actually called information theory. It describes many aspects of how we transmit and store information, even what information is. The basic unit of information is the bit. Bits are the 1s and 0s that computers use, the ons and offs of the transistors inside computer and the trues and falses in a game of twenty questions. One might think that the amount of information in a document or message is just the number of bits it takes to express that message. There are several reasons that isn’t quite right. My favorite, partly because of its name, is the concept of “surprise.”


193px-Carol_Burnett_1958Surprise sounds like it ought to be a fun concept, and it is actually quite intuitive. Imagine your in a bank. As you wait in line for a teller, you shift your gaze around the room. You notice that there is an alarm bell on the wall. That bell can do two things. It can ring and it can not ring. That sounds nice and binary. The bell can express a single bit of information. As you stand in line, you are not surprised that the alarm is not ringing. You expect it to be silent. From that point of view you might say that it is not conveying any information. It actually is, but only very little. If on the other hand, the bell starts ringing, you (and everyone else in the bank) will be very surprised. It feels like the bell is now conveying a lot of information, but isn’t it still just a one bit message?

The key is that the less likely a message is, the more surprising the message is, and the more information it is conveying. By the formal definition of surprise, a message that has to occur has no surprise and carries no information. A message that is impossible would convey infinite surprise, and infinite information as well. (the next time you are surprised by something, you probably won’t consider that it has a formal definition, but you can always try). It is an interesting concept. We are often surprised by discoveries in genealogy and probably wouldn’t even call them discoveries unless they were at least somewhat surprising. The closer a document is to impossible, the more surprised we are, and it feels right to consider it as carrying more information. The next time you find the second death record for an ancestor recorded years after the first, you are not only entitled to be surprised but to be in awe of the amount of information being conveyed—it is either telling you that your previous information is wrong and giving you the new information, or it is conveying the information that your next step is to get a hold of Stephen King’s phone number.

Ancestral Surprise

Another thing that leads to surprise in genealogy, is going back another generation. It gets harder as we go and feels more surprising every time we manage to do it. I was surprised to learn that there is a basis for this in information theory as well.

Pedigree charts are very binary things. When we number them with ahnentafel numbers, the numbers get larger as we go back to more distant ancestors, and they do so in a special way. Every generation back adds another bit to the length of an ahnentafel number if you express it in binary. You are 1, your father 10, your mother 11, her mother 111 and so on.

The codes computer use to represent typed characters are also very binary. For example, in one coding (ASCII) an A is represented by 0100 0001, a B by 0100 0010, and so on. Often when trying to be efficient, the most probable messages will be given the shortest codes. Morse code represents the most commonly used letters with the shortest codes. E is a single dot in Morse. Q is dash-dash-dot-dash. If you construct a diagram to decide on binary codes in the most efficient way, the most probable codes using the fewest bits, you end up constructing a thing that looks exactly like a pedigree chart. The less likely a coded item is to be used, the more bits in the code for that item. The more bits, the lower the probability, and from above we know that means the greater the surprise. Now, the binary ahnentafel numbers get one bit longer per generation, which means we now have a mathematical proof that discovering great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma is very surprising indeed.

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Just One Record

By Daniel Hubbard | February 14, 2016

Last week I was at Rootstech helping people with their Swedish ancestry. I may have called this kind of thing genealogical speed dating before. If I haven’t, I will now. It goes fast and it can be a lot of fun. Sometime there just isn’t enough time to find records or to think things through. Other times, you find things. Sometimes things even go spectacularly well.

The Story, Part 1

I was asked to track down a soldier. I found a record that placed him in the Malmö garrison in the 1860s. I checked there and didn’t so much find a record as a story. I found him. He was listed with his wife. Above her name it was written that she was a widow and the identity of her deceased husband was entered. I could tell looking at it, that he wasn’t just anyone, but the man whose death opened the position in the garrison that had been filled by the soldier I was tracking. He hadn’t simply gotten a job, he had gotten a wife too. If you think about it, that is a story all on its own. After her name, her deceased husband was mentioned again in order to state that he was the father of the children whose names followed.

The Story, Part 2

After those children came the name of the first child of our soldier and the widow. All his information was entered, date of birth and date of baptism, just as one would expect. No story there. The next child was born four years later. The birth date was stated, but there was no name and no date of baptism. There was a note about the mother not allowing the child to be baptized. It reminded me of a note I had once read in a different Swedish record. The Lutheran minister had written “Child not baptized” where the date should have been but then added a note at the end that the child had been baptized by a Methodist minister. Thinking about that religious explanation of a baptismal oddity made me realize that the note I was looking at was not what I thought. It did not use the Swedish word “Maman,” a rather informal term for mother. It said “Mormon.” It wasn’t that the mother refused baptism, it was that Mormons refused baptism. When I explained this, the woman I was helping got excited and said that it made sense “We don’t baptize until age 8.” I looked back at the record. The previous, baptized child had been born four years earlier. In those four years there had been a conversion. I pointed out what the timing had to mean. Her eyes grew big. “Thank you! Thank you! I have to go check church records!” And she was off, with one record and quite a story.

You never want to leave a stone unturned. It might be hiding a record. And just one record can tell a whole story.

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The Kindness of Strangers’ Pension Files

By Daniel Hubbard | January 31, 2016

I’ve been researching Robert. He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. In his pension application he made many statements. He listed his units and the surnames of those units’ commanding officers. It was very good information. I learned where his units gathered, the paths they took on the march and the name of the battle in which he fought. All very interesting, but he said nothing that might give me a hint about his family except for the name of the county where he was living in the 1770s.

When Robert was a rather old man, he testified concerning another man’s pension application. He testified that he knew that the other man had been in the war because he had been in the same unit as Robert’s father. They were very different in age, but they had been comrade’s-in-arms. Frustratingly, he never named his father. He mentioned him a few times in his testimony, but he never named him. After the main body of Robert’s testimony, the man who was taking it all down must have asked a few questions. The questions were not recorded, but suddenly the statements that were recorded became staccato. They were disjoint, the sentences not following at all from each other. One of those non sequiturs was the statement, “My father’s name was Robert.” Ah, the kindness of strangers…or at least of strangers’ pension records.

So his father was Robert. Is that sure? It makes perfect sense for a son to share his name with his father. It is also possible for an old man to give the wrong answer, for him to simply state the first name that comes to mind, which just might be his own name. So was his father Robert or not? There are a lot of documents which might corroborate Robert as the son of Robert, but the obvious searches turned up nothing. A lowly tax list turned out to be magical. It was the kind of record that makes you want to jump for genealogical joy. It listed Robert and his son Robert. They were in the right place at the right time. The list was prepared in sections by different people. The man who prepared the section with the Roberts had an unusual surname that happened to be the same as the name of the captain of one of Robert Jr’s units. One of the other men on the list was actually called captain and his whole name matched another one of Robert Jr’s officers. The only thing that might make it better was if Robert Sr’s comrade-in-arms from the pension records was also in that section, and sure enough, he was. It is the right path. Now to follow it!

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The Records are Confused

By Daniel Hubbard | January 17, 2016

There is an interesting phrase one runs into in genealogy. It is “the records are confused.” When I first started out in genealogy, back when I was a kid, I thought that was a very strange phrase. It seemed to imply that those records sat around after the courthouse closed scratching their headings and not being sure of anything. Of course, that isn’t what the phrase means, but the question isn’t really what the phrase means, but rather what it might indicate.

A Record is Confusing

Some records really are internally inconsistent. A document can contain actual errors, so that if all the information in it is taken at face value, obvious nonsense is the result. That is probably the closest thing we have to my imagined records that sit around wondering what they might mean. Other records just seem to be internally inconsistent. I once read a will that did not make much sense. Then I realized that the will referred to two different people who had exactly the same name. Until further research showed that the author of the will had an aunt and a cousin of the same name, that will was certainly confusing.

Boundary changes can also be sources for “confused documents.” It is odd, but sometimes a record will not line up with history. I’ve run into a few cases where a deed says that a man purchased land in a county before the county existed, or sold land in a county after that county was discontinued. The full explanations of such things might never be known but I suspect the confusion I saw to have arisen from a difference in time between the writing of the deed and the copying of that deed into the county records. If names and boundaries changed in the time between those events, what might the clerk write in the register of deeds? Quite possibly he wrote something confusing.

A Group of Records is Confusing

Sometimes records seem fine on their own but don’t line up with each other. I have six records relevant to a man’s death:

  1. a slip of paper with the most important dates in his life. It was written by his mother between 50 and 80 years ago,
  2. the page from his mother’s family Bible that records his death,
  3. his burial record,
  4. his death certificate,
  5. a photograph of his grave marker.

Before I get to the sixth, I need to discuss the dates on those five records. The first four agree on the day and month. The grave marker has only years. The Bible record, the grave marker, the death certificate and the burial record all have the year of death as 1926. The slip of paper records the year as 1925. There can be little doubt that the agreement between the death certificate and the burial record would outweigh just about anything else. With the Bible record and grave marker also in agreement, there is little reason to trust that slip of paper. I don’t know when his mother wrote it, or how good her memory was at the time. All I can say in its defense is that all the other dates on it are corroborated by records made at the time of the events in question.

Now the sixth document. It is a telegram sent to the man’s mother. There is no question that it was sent to her. It has both her name and her address on it, and I can verify the address using many other records. The telegram has been passed down in the family, so there is no question about its provenance. The telegram calls her “mother,” so it is clearly from one of her children. She only had two children and there can be no confusion between the two. Given the name that appears at the bottom of the telegram, it is from her older son, who is the man in question. It was sent from a small city a few hundred miles from the place where he and his mother both lived, but that is as expected for a man who was a traveling salesman and wanted to send his mother birthday greetings when he was out of town. The telegram was sent on his mother’s birthday too. The problem was that it was sent on his mother’s birthday in 1927, almost a year after he died. Not being a mystery writer, I can only conclude that Western Union simply put the wrong year on the telegram, yet that would normally be a pretty trustworthy place to find a year. This record would seem to be confused, but only those other records make the problem clear.

The Researcher is Confused

Often what is meant by “the records are confused” is that the researcher is confused. My first experience with the phrase was in a typed document of unknown origin sent to me by a friendly archivist. It purported to trace several generations of the family that I was researching. When my 11-year-old head stopped spinning, I had worked out that the person whose records were confused could only be explained by being the daughter of her father and his own mother, who would have to have been…wait for it…the daughter in question. That is, she was both her own mother and her own grandmother. This was long before the days when anyone could accidentally tie their database into knots with an unfortunate click or an ill-timed computer crash. How do we avoid confusion like that? We can start by not trusting all information in secondary sources and family recollections without question. Then don’t struggle to make it all fit together if it defies logic. Go back to contemporary records and try to find as many records relevant to the question as possible. Finally, try to find sensible resolutions to the inconsistencies that appear, even if it means arguing that some of the hard won data is wrong.

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