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Near Enough

By Daniel Hubbard | April 14, 2014

David J. Hand, the author of the book The Improbability Principle has a list of items that go into his principle-

  1. The Law of Inevitability
  2. The Law of Truly Large Numbers
  3. The Law of Selection
  4. The Law of the Probability Lever
  5. The Law of Near Enough

In the book he describes events that seem like they should never happen and shows how those laws make those events not particularly surprising.

The Odds of Finding Something

This week as I’ve been tracing immigrants back to Sweden. That means trying to determine information in American records that will be useful in matching to Swedish records. That has put the Law of Near Enough on my mind. Put simply that law means that the odds of finding something increase as you loosen your criteria for what you consider to be a match. It is easy to see how that could contribute to our sense that a coincidence has occurred. If we think that two things happened at the same moment, we might find it interesting. We might still find it interesting if they occurred during the same hour. What if they happened during the same day? The same month? Somewhere, as we alter the amount of time, those occurrences go from interesting to boring if we stop and consider the span of time. If we don’t think about it, we can be fooled into thinking that something is wildly unlikely when it is actually rather probable.

Often we don’t even think about the fact that criteria exist but, like the time span above, they do and they affect our research. In genealogy we are always trying to determine if two records correspond to the same person. What criteria do we use? We can look at the opposite of the Law of Near Enough. We can restrict the criteria we use until we will never match records with each other. How about an obituary that claims that a person died at 4am and a death certificate with information that matches the obituary in every detail but one. It records the time of death as 3:56am? Clearly different people, right? Wrong, our allowable difference between the times is ridiculously small.

Where do we draw the line? If a document records a man’s age as 50 and the person we are looking for would have been 51 at the time, is that “near enough”? Now we need to start answering questions. How common was his name? How close was the record made to the expected place (another “near enough” question)? How likely is it that the man’s age was rounded down? How likely is a misunderstanding? Did anyone have a reason to lie? Might the person who made the statement not have known any better? Might the informant have given an accurate version of their uncertainty only to have the clerk right down something exact—could “about 50″ have been said to a clerk who “simplified” the answer to “50″?

An Old Story

An apparently old story, which I have to admit I never heard before, involves a traveler going down the road passed a barn. The side of the barn was peppered with arrows, each sitting dead center in a target. The traveler concluded that a master archer lived there until turning the corner to discover a man carefully painting targets around each one of a set of arrows. As genealogists, we are stuck (so to speak) with the arrows that were shot into the barn generations ago but we do need to think about the targets that we paint around them. Draw targets that are too small and no two arrows will sit in the same target. Draw targets that are too large and arrows that have nothing to do with each other will be in the same bullseye.

So how big do we draw the targets around our documents? How far out can a document be and still be a match for another document? Make the target large enough and we will find something but that something will very likely be a false positive—something we consider “near enough” when it really isn’t. When we thought a moment ago about how common a person’s name was, that was a false positive type of thing to worry about. A woman with a very strange and unusual name who was within a few years of the correct age and found in almost the right place is much less likely to be a false positive than is a man named James Smith in otherwise identical circumstances.

Then there is the question of confirmation. The obituary and the death certificate that differ by 4 minutes in the reported time of death don’t need confirmation in order to conclude that, with everything else matching, they record the same person. On the other hand, if we don’t find a match and expand our target, what kind of confirmation will we need to really show that the bigger target was justified? Expanding our target often means needing to find more arrows that hit it.

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Top Ten

By Daniel Hubbard | April 6, 2014

In light of David Letterman’s impending retirement, here are the-

Top ten reasons to give up genealogy

10 Tired of the search result “Buy Ichabod Whittleby products on!”
9 Thought people were kidding about the 1890 census.
8 Upset by DNA match to Justin Bieber.
7 Discovered that someone has copied your idea to fill a hollowed out mountain with genealogy records.
6 Ancestral castle in Scotland turned out to be a White Castle® in Scottsburg.
5 Discovered great-grandma died in infancy.
4 Tired of accusations of plagiarism over your book, Roots.
3 That lying clerk’s insistence that the courthouse had burned when you were clearly standing inside it.
2 Your starring role in the local theater production of Who Do You Think You Are failed to land you a part on the TV show.
1 Realized that all the interesting ancestors are already taken.

If any of these reasons actually seem correct and reasonable to you, don’t give up, take a deep breath and forge on.

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The Attrition of Facts

By Daniel Hubbard | March 30, 2014

When I studied ancient history in this university many years ago, I had as a special subject “Greece in the period of the Persian Wars.” I collected fifteen or twenty volumes on my shelves and took it for granted that there, recorded in these volumes, I had all the facts relating to my subject. Let us assume—it was very nearly true—that those volumes contained all the fact about it that were then known, or could be known. It never occurred to me to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all the myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts of history.
—historian E. H. Carr as quoted in The Improbability Principle

We don’t generally research events of quite the historical importance of the Persian Wars. It was a period of fifty years that involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and left a deep imprint on the future of the world but even so, “fifteen or twenty volumes” could contain the sum total of the information about that half century of intermittent war. It makes one wonder about the “process of attrition” that has limited what we can learn about our own, more immediate, ancestors.

I’ve been researching a woman who applied for a Civil War widows pension. she was required to prove various things in order to be entered into the pension rolls. Obviously, her husband must have died. That she could prove. Equally obviously, the dead man must have been her husband. She had been married previously so she also needed to prove that her first husband had died. Those last two important events had occurred in Chicago in the years before the Great Fire of 1871 and she could not prove either of them. There was already attrition of facts in her past.

Records burn and memories fade. How often do we run into someone who consistently says that her father was from New York and her mother was from Ohio, only to find that her parents consistently said that they were from Germany and New Jersey? How often do we find the phrase “don’t know” written into the census or a death certificate?

As researchers we are often forced to rely on implications and reason to try to replace what had once been known, what had once been clearly documented. We painstakingly rebuild what attrition of facts has torn down. That, I think, is when searching for the personal past goes from interesting to sublime.

People who are interested in genealogy but not genealogists themselves are often amazed not just by what was found but by what can be found and pieced together. They are fascinated by the fact that it can be known. That amazement is something we ought to remember. We ought to take the time on occasion to sit back and ponder or perhaps “to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts” of our family history.

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By Daniel Hubbard | March 23, 2014

The other day I went to the library to pick up a book I had on hold. I found the book and a magazine on the shelf waiting for me. I checked them out and was casually flipping through the magazine while I waited for my daughter’s choir practice to wrap up. In the back of the magazine I saw a picture that would not have been familiar to me just an hour earlier. It was a picture of the book that I had just checked out along with the magazine. What a coincidence!

Well, it isn’t really a coincidence. I had the book on hold because I had heard an author interview and it sounded interesting. Authors usually do interviews about their books because the books have just been published. Recently published books are more likely to be found in full-page advertisements at the back of a magazine than are other books. It is also more likely for a person who is interested in a book to also be interested in a magazine whose subject matter means that it is a good place to run an ad for the book. My choice of that book and that magazine was not random. I do have to admit that it is amusing that the book in question is The Improbability Principle, a book about the nature of coincidences and why we should actually expect them.

What is a Coincidence?

What genealogist hasn’t run into what seems like a remarkable coincidence when researching their family? Some of the toughest things for genealogists to handle are those “coincidences.” Some coincidences are meaningless and we need to weed them out and disregard them or they will waste our time and even lead us to wrong conclusions. Other coincidences are meaningful and are major clues. How do you tell them apart?

The first thing to do is to define what we really mean by “coincidence.” The parts of the word simply indicate that something happened at roughly the same place and time as something else. That doesn’t really do it though. Coincidences need to have some sort of surprise factor. There can’t be a cause and effect relation. If you throw a rock at a window and then hear the sound of shattering glass, you would not call it a coincidence. If you threw the same rock at a tree and heard the sound of shattering glass just as you saw the rock hit the tree, that you would probably think of it as a coincidence—and a pretty strange one at that. A more genealogical example might be finding a man with a very unusual name in a small town and then finding a different man in the same town with the same name fifty years later. Coincidence or a child named for his grandfather?

Another set of occurrences that we shouldn’t really think of as coincidences are things that have the same cause. It isn’t a coincidence when the snow melts and the first plants start to come up in the spring. Both are brought on by the arrival of warmer weather.

Events that don’t have any apparent connection don’t qualify as a coincidences either. You would not think “Wow, what a coincidence!” if the dog two doors down starts to bark at the same moment you took a sip of tea.

Coincidence to Clue in Genealogy

If we find something that looks like a coincidence, what should we do? Can we immediately conclude that we have something meaningful and go on from there? No, given the number of people who have existed in the last few hundred years and the number of things they did that were recorded, there is plenty of room for chance to make things seem to be connected when they are not. In fact, it would be strange if chance did not make a few things seem to be connected when they are not.  Lots of things happen and some of them will randomly seem to be related. Can we immediately conclude that our coincidence is meaningless? No, it might be that what looks like two unconnected random facts are actually connected by cause and effect. One may have caused the other, or they might be the results of a common cause or share some common factor.

One question that needs to be asked is, what is the chance that there is something behind this coincidence? Figuring that out means digging into the situation. If you just discovered that one of your ancestors was in the Civil War and you look at the names of the other men in his unit and see a name that looks familiar, is it random or meaningful? If the name is familiar because someone of that name lived in the same town that you suspect your ancestor lived in before the war, then it might be meaningful. Nevertheless, you could only conclude that after you learn that Civil War units were usually made up of men from the same area. You can also think about what is the chance that it is a random coincidence that two people with the same unusual last name are from the same place? Is the population of that place 50 or 50,000? Is the name unusual in general but common among an ethnic group that is numerous in that area? All of these things help to decide if the coincidence is worth pursuing.

The other question that you should ask is, “If this was more than a coincidence, how could these things be connected?” There might no way for them to be connected or there might be several. If there is no way, then it is time to go on. If there is a way or even several different ways, then you need to think about the next question—”What would a possible relationship between these things mean?” What kind of evidence might exist if any given possible connection was correct? Once you are able to ask that question, you have turned a coincidence into a clue and that is cause for a little celebration.

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Genealogy Day

By Daniel Hubbard | March 16, 2014

Sure, we already have Family History Month in October but as my kids have pointed out to me lately, to be cool now, your activity needs to have a specific day with a funny connection to what it is supposed to celebrate. For example, earlier this month, grammarians celebrated grammar day on March 4. They are clearly required to celebrate as well. It is an imperative, literally. The day is March Fourth or as a clear order “March forth!” It is apparently a day for grammar gurus to take to the streets.

As I write this, my little math whizzes are coming down from a Pi Day induced sugar high. Clearly then, I am writing this paragraph on March 14, or rather 3/14, the first three digits of the famous mathematical constant Π (Pi, 3.14159…) In the rest of the world where people more sensibly put the month in the middle of the date rather than at the beginning, it needs to be explained to people why the 14th of March is Pi Day. Unfortunately, the more sensible ordering would put Pi Day on 31/4, the 31st of April. That would be a good candidate for “National Confused by the Calendar Day” but not for Pi Day. Pi Day has the plus side that “pi” sounds like “pie” which are appropriately round and also good at grabbing children’s interest, hence the Pi Day pie sugar highs.

In a month and a half my son will draw his light saber in celebration of Star Wars Day. It falls on May the 4th, as in “May the Fourth be with you.” If you don’t get the joke,  you clearly have not spent much time with an elementary or middle schooler, or anyone sufficiently geeky.

Clearly to be cooler, genealogy needs a day like this. One problem is that where pi has a clear tie to pie, making Pi Day even more popular, genealogy has trees and the food that looks most like trees is broccoli. I like broccoli but my kids just spent the afternoon at the library doing pi based activities and eating pie. While the library would be  a great place to celebrate Genealogy Day, eating broccoli at the library won’t get the kids out in quite the same numbers.

Perhaps we need to forget the food tie-in but what about a good day?

January 1 “First one” to remind people to start with themselves when researching but it’s already national hangover day. I don’t want to be on the road on New Year’s Day and I don’t want to see the trees that might be put online that day either.

February 2 is nice and binary like Ahnentafel numbers but “Two Two” sounds like it ought to be National Ballet Day.

The fifth of any month might be in remembrance of all our ancestors who seem to have “taken the fifth” instead of leaving any useful information behind. On the other hand, that is not likely to increase the popularity of genealogy.

We need a day to celebrate our past, our ancestors, our origins, our “august beginnings,” which of course, is the answer. August 1, the beginning of August it should be. Pi Day eat your hear out. Now if I can just get my kids to eat their Genealogy Day broccoli…




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By Daniel Hubbard | March 9, 2014

The word “genealogy” is made of two parts meaning “origin” and “study.” It is, at its core, the study of our personal origins.

Genealogy is often broader than its own etymological origins because are naturally curious about those who share some of those origins. We want to know who descends from some of the same ancestors as we do. What experiences lie in their branch of the past that don’t lie in ours? What can they tells us? What mysteries of theirs can we solve?

I had a meeting this week with a man from Sweden who had wondered what became of a pair of brothers that branched off from his family a century and a half ago. They were born in Sweden in the 1860s and twenty years later they headed for North America. He had a few things that gave clues like a photograph taken in a small town in Michigan in the 1880s. He knew a bit about how their names had changed and who one had married but after that they just disappeared from what of his own branch of the family knew.

What had happened to those brothers? Do they have descendants in America? Are there relatives to contact and visit? Answering those questions is one thing but forming the connections is another. What is the best way to try to make them?

Different people will react differently to different kinds of contact. They will react differently to any kind of contact. Some people are thrilled and will begin a flurry of communication and will want to meet you. Others will think it is fun but not be particularly interested in your genealogical pursuits Others will be disinterested in contact at first but warm later. Others will think that it is a scam and want nothing to do with it.

When you are really excited about finding a long lost branch of the family, it can be hard to give people their own space to get used to contact from a new relative. My meeting was full of tales of different reactions and needing to tread lightly here but having immediate daily contact there. So many different reactions. So many different speeds accepting that a new distant relative had appeared. So many different levels of interest. Everyone’s reaction was different. Everyone came into the contact with different pasts and different reactions based on their own stories. It was fascinating to hear how things had gone. Some contacts went very well indeed, otherwise he would not have traveled from Sweden to travel the U.S. and meet his distant relatives.


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Funhouse Mirror Memories

By Daniel Hubbard | March 2, 2014

Nearly all genealogy begins with memories—your memories, your cousins memories, your great aunt Gertrude’s memories. Someone’s family recollections peak someone else’s interest. Grandma gets interviewed. A notebook is filled with Uncle Ralph’s stories about his relatives when he was growing up and then when word gets out that you’re working on the family history, an envelope will arrive with forty-year-old, handwritten notes made by the mother of a distant cousin about what she knew.

You gather up everything from crystal clear memories to bizarre family lore and set about the task of corroborating it. You try to match the names in the memories to the names on an official page. Sometimes those memories will lead directly to records made decades and decades ago. Sometimes nothing will be found and little bits and possible falsehoods can be left out to see if they might have been the problem.

Often trying to match those memories to documented reality will guide us to frustration and nothingness. Then a funny thing happens. A record turns up, then another and another but nothing makes sense. Then comes the “Ah-ha.” What is appearing isn’t what was recollected. In ways it isn’t even close but yet it is recognizably what those remembrances were all about. Comparing the two is like looking into a funhouse mirror. Yes, that is you in the mirror and yet you’re not 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide with arms six feet long.

So often a family story is half-forgotten and distorted by the time it reaches the next person who realizes that it is worth committing to memory. Distorted as it is, that story and others like it are where family history begins. Keep the things that don’t help you find records in mind. They might just help you recognize what you do find. Also, remember to enjoy that look in the mirror. It is a funhouse mirror after all.

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Eileen Dover

By Daniel Hubbard | February 23, 2014

When I was a kid there was a group of jokes that consisted of nothing more than the titles and authors of fictitious books. One of my favorites was Viewing the Grand Canyon by Eileen Dover. If you don’t get it, just say it out loud, you will.

Brick Walls and Cliffs

Sometimes in genealogy we reach the edge of a cliff. After following a nice level plain of documentation, suddenly we reach a time and place where the records simply stop and we lean over and look into the abyss. Somewhere down there is a new level of solid ground. Sometimes it is not actually so very far, sometimes “abyss” really feels like the right word.

Genealogist often talk of brick walls. They occur when we get stuck on a particular line but have a reasonable expectation of getting back farther. Being unable to find the parents of someone born in 1890 probably counts as a brick wall. Not being able to find the parents of someone born 1590 probably does not. What about the cliffs when there is a general break in the records, a discontinuity that does not just disrupt one line for one researcher? Sometimes these breaks are not so dangerous. I remember coming across the title of a presentation on American genealogy that was something like “You Can Get Back Before 1850.” You certainly can. There is, of course, a discontinuity there. Beyond that point the Federal census gives much less information but it is not a very long drop down to the base of that cliff. With other techniques research in America can realistically go back more than two centuries.

Its All Relative

What fascinates me about these cliffs is that they depend on so many things. If you are American and think of 1850 as a discontinuity in the census, then you are probably of European descent. If you were African-American you would think of the census discontinuity occurring in 1870. In fact 1870 is the beginning of a much larger cliff. Before the records of the Freedman’s Bank and Civil War records relating to the U.S. Colored Troops, contrabands and refugees, the African-American researcher faces a serious cliff in the terrain that they might not be able to descend. Other genealogists won’t need to peer over that edge at all. Irish researchers face a different set of cliffs—the earliest complete census (1901), the earliest civil registration (mid 19th century), the earliest surviving church records (often early 19th century). Who, where and when you research determines the cliffs that you might encounter.

I’ve found some of my English ancestors in parish records from the first half of the 16th century, back in the time when parish registers first started to be kept in England. There I must stare over that English cliff. Some lines can be traced past that point but it is a very different business. That cliff might indeed have no bottom for me to find. It is a strange feeling to lean over an edge and wonder if there is a possibility of donning a helmet, attaching a rope and repelling down the rock face to that next level. Of course, the only way to know is to try.

According to one of the myths of Hercules, he placed two pillars at the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean world comes to an end and the Atlantic begins. Later tradition held that they were inscribed with the words Non plus ultra, meaning “Nothing beyond.” They marked the end of the world and warned sailors to go no further. Of course, there was a great deal beyond. It just had to wait for people who would look.

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Blessed are the Indexers

By Daniel Hubbard | February 16, 2014

Everyone loves a good index. Occasionally, we love to hate them but still have to confess that they are vital.

These days when we think about an index, we usually think of a searchable database. When they are accurate they are wonderful because they allow us to find information based on a few things that we have discovered. There are other types of indexes; older types of indexes. That usually makes one think of the index in the back of a book. Not as powerful as a digital index but if you have every tried to use an unindexed book, you know just how important it is to have something.


There are many types of indices that people have used through the years to try to make it easier to find information. We’re most familiar with strictly alphabetical indices. If a book is indexed, that is how it will be indexed. Alphabetical indices sound simple but they aren’t always. One complication can be the language in which the index made. Any English speaker who watched the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics would have noticed that the alphabetized teams did not march in the order that an English speaker would expect. That’s what happens when something is alphabetized according to Russian spelling and Cyrillic alphabetical order. Even when the Latin alphabet that we are familiar with is the one that is used there can be complications. How are German names containing umlauts alphabetized? Where do Scandinavians put their extra vowels?

What is the index is only partially alphabetical? Then you need to take the time to understand how it works. In the nineteenth century there were schemes to make the indexer’s life easier when indexing things like land records. People whose surnames began with the same letters might be grouped together and then their given names written into different columns based on the alphabet. One column might be used for anyone whose name began with “A,” “B,” or “C” the next column for “D,” “E,” or “F” and so on. I recently used an Austrian index that grouped surnames by the first letter and the next vowel. For example, names starting with “Feld” and names starting with “Fred” would be together.

Other groupings can be used too. One of my recent favorites was a birth index that lumped together everybody of the same surname in alphabetical order by surname but then subdivided them in blocks by family. The order of the families was random but once you found the right child, all the siblings were right there with them.


Especially when spelling is a bit iffy, a phonetic index could be a wise choice. Soundex is probably the most familiar to genealogists. Letters are converted to a numeric code and all letters that have a similar sound convert to the same digit. (If you live in Illinois, the start of your driver’s license number is just the Soundex code for your surname.) It is no accident that as the U.S. population became large enough that some sort of index was needed in order for it to be useful, Soundex was the chosen method to go back and index census records. When Anglophone enumerators tried to spell immigrant’s names, it did not always go so very well. A phonetic method was what was needed. On the other hand, if one enumerator spelled a foreign name correctly and that name did not follow English phonetics, then the Soundex code won’t necessarily put the name into the same phonetic group as when the same family was enumerated by someone who spelled the name incorrectly and according to English phonetics.

Different languages will naturally have different ways to put names into phonetic order. The German phonetic order that I used the other day was similar to but not the same as what might have been done if the records had been in English.

Other than Names

Older indices and ordered lists may not be based on names. City directories were sometimes based on occupation. That kind of directory was not meant to find a person with a specific name but rather to find a lawyer or a plumber. In other cases, records might be cross-referenced in interesting ways. They aren’t technically indices but they do allow you to find where a person lived if you know the date that they moved, for example.

Using an Index

Indexes are, in a word, great. Every time we find an index to a set of records, we should be thankful that someone made that index. It might have been made for genealogical reasons but often the reason was that clerks needed to be able to find things in the records that they themselves had created. A record set in which nothing can be found is not just useless to genealogists but to everyone else as well.

So, just because there is no modern, computer-searchable index doesn’t mean there is no index. Just because an index seems odd, doesn’t mean that it is not possible to learn how it works.

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Memory’s Moorings

By Daniel Hubbard | February 9, 2014

A remark in a recent program on PBS caught my attention. A woman who was born into an Amish community showed a picture of herself as a child. It should not exist. In her community you were not supposed to be photographed but she went to a school with non Amish students and so the school was visited by a school photographer. She wasn’t supposed to have an individual picture taken but she was a rebellious little girl and sat for the photographer and gave a big smile, proudly showing off the big gap from a missing tooth.

From the way she told the story, it was clear that she had not always possessed the photo. It was something that she received years later after leaving the Amish. She did not grow up with the photo, or any photo of herself as a child. She had only memories to tell her how she had looked many years before. When she received that photograph, she almost didn’t recognize herself. Her memory did not match the photograph. That is not an experience that many people can ever have. People born after photography became common generally grow up looking at pictures of how they once appeared and if they didn’t grow up that way it is probably because there were none taken. It must be extremely rare to grow up without any photographs to shape and preserve memories of one’s self and then suddenly, as an adult, receive a photograph of an eight-year-old that one doesn’t really recognize and know “that’s me.”

If I think about my own memories of myself as a child, I certainly remember episodes. I can tell stories about my childhood. What if I try to remember how I looked or how I dressed? I don’t remember looking into a mirror and seeing my face. I have some vague memories of what might have been hanging in my closet. What I remember are photographs that I have seen over the years, photographs that I have in albums and can pull out whenever I want. Those are my memories of my appearance. They are memories of photographs. Memories that have been added to, corrected and reenforced years later. I assume that most people’s memories of themselves in the age of photography rest on a similar foundation. Without that documentation that we take for granted, her memories were weaker. Only memories of mirrors were there to tell her how she once had looked and those memories had been drifting free of photographic moorings for decades.

Self is a more powerful concept than ancestry and yet when an ancestry suddenly unfolds, it is, in a way, a similar experience. People often have a strong sense of their roots even if they don’t know the details. We might know something of our ethnicity or we might have heard a few family stories that we half remember. We might know nothing at all, not even the names of our biological parents. Even so, people sense that those unknown roots are important. Even without ever having seen a childhood photograph there is a sense of an earlier self. Even without knowing one’s ancestral past there is the sense that it exists and that it is important to who we are. When we uncover ancestors, find their documents and reconstruct their lives, we may not recognize them in ourselves and yet have that sense that they are part of what we have become. Our personal past has started to gain memory’s moorings.

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