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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part H

By Daniel Hubbard | November 29, 2015

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for children that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for antecedent, those things that came before.

B is for the family’s Bible; births, marriages, and deaths tucked safely in a drawer.

So what might an alphabet book for genealogists might look like? I’ve already taken a stab at “A,”  “B,”  “C,”  “D,”  “E,”  “F,” and “G.” So, for genealogists, what might “H” be for?

H is for Headstone

“H” could be for “headstone,” those objects that others associate with burials and Halloween, but we know they are one of the few times a bit of our family history is literally carved in stone.

“H” could be for “Handybook,” the genealogical reference that sits on so many desks. Mine is a 7th edition given to me by an aunt, who perhaps wanted me to stay interested, or who just maybe got tired of me borrowing hers.

“H” could be for “hope,” that feeling that keeps us going through all sorts of adversity, genealogical and otherwise. It helps us persist when we are convinced an ancestor is hiding.

“H” could be for “hiding,” that activity that certain ancestors seem to revel in. They play hide-and-seek with us across the centuries.

“H” could be for “hunt,” when our seeking gets more serious and that hiding ancestor becomes Moby Dick to our Captain Ahab.

Those are all fine words, but, the most important word beginning with “H” must be “History.” We deal most often with historical minutia, but we dare not forget about history at the other scales. That bigger history is the bedrock upon which our ancestors stood. If we ignore that history, we leave them floating and misunderstood or even unfound and unknown.

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It’s About-Time

By Daniel Hubbard | November 23, 2015

Genealogists spend much of there existence in “about-time,” that time that is neither known nor unknown, that twilight between mystery and understanding. Yet about-time doesn’t need to be as mysterious as it often seems. There is usually some information hiding behind the word “about.”

Perfect-World Type of About-Time

Where do we find “about 1811” in the about-time calendar? It depends on the reason for that “about.” Probably the most common reason we enter into about-time is an age. If all we know about an ancestor’s birth is that they were recorded as being age 39 in the 1850 census, we might write that they were born “about 1811.” That is not really all we know though, is it? If the age is accurate, then that ancestor was born either in 1811 or, if his or her birthday had not yet passed, 1810. A simple “about 1811” implies that 1811 is likely but that 1810 and 1812 are also fairly likely. That isn’t really correct. 1810 is quite possible and 1812 is impossible (again, if the age is accurate). We can even go one step farther. If we check the census day for 1850, we find that it was June 1. If everything was done write, our ancestor had to have been born by June 2, 1810, and on or before June 1, 1811. A birth in 1810 is actually slightly more likely than one in 1811.

Another source of about-time is probate records. Fraud aside, an accurate copy of a will implies that the ancestor was alive on the date the will was written. Outside of rare cases when a missing person was declared dead, the ancestor was dead by the date the will was proved. If the will was proved January 31, 1860, one might write “about 1859” for the death date. Yet it is trickier than that. Under some circumstances, it can by years after the death that the will was proved, making “about 1859” wildly off. Check the date that the will was written and discover that it was written January 7, 1860, and if everything is accurate, “about 1859” is clearly not right.

Sometimes we genealogists might estimate a marriage date based on the birth date for the only known child. Once again we have entered about-time, and now we are dealing with a marriage that might have occurred only a few months before the birth, as sometimes happened, or more than a decade before the birth. Here there is no true range. All we know is that the marriage occurred before the birth, and that though likely to have occurred within a few years of the birth, it could have happened anywhere in a range only limited by legal marrying age and biological impossibility.

The Evidence, Warts and All Type of About-Time

Because the records we deal with are created by real, fallible people, we also need to remember that the dating evidence might be wrong. This goes especially for ages. Can we be sure that the ancestor in question was really born between June 2, 1810, and June 1, 1811? No. That is what that one record tells us, but we cannot be sure of the accuracy? Misreporting of ages is common. In any case when we are in about-time we also need to ponder how accurate we believe our information to be. Suspiciously round numbers for ages, notes that imply the information was questionable even to the person who recorded it, reasons to doubt other information recorded by the same person, and conflicting evidence, should all lead us to be much less certain of our information. Our about-time needs to become wider to accommodate the reasonable possibilities.

Handling Errors

When I was a physicist, I learned to calculate the level of error on a measurements. The measurement might give a single value, but that value might be off. Errors on data points expressed how for away from reality those points might be, given the circumstances. Just as we just saw in genealogy, there were two types of errors. One reason for inaccuracy in physics is the number of measurements. More measurements give more accuracy by an amount that depends on how many measurements were made. Those statistical errors shrink with more measurements. If everything went right, the true value should be within the range given by those errors. They are the perfect world type of errors. They answer the question—if everything was fine, how close should we be to reality? In the world of genealogical about-time, this is the perfect-world range one gets if one has an age, assumes it is correct, and uses it to calculate the possible birthdays. Back in the world of physics, we also needed to think about systematic errors, those errors that might occur because of external problems, like a lack of accuracy in settings used. In a physics experiment, you might set a meter to 3.50 wangdoodles (not an actual unit), but the actual number of wangdoodles might have been 3.49 or 3.51. That inaccuracy can shift or blur results. Back in the world of genealogical about-time, this is when we take into account that we are not dealing with perfect informants, talking to perfect clerks, enumerators, priests, ministers, and sextons. Those records were not then copied by perfect copyists when the originals needed preservation. That is the source of our systematic error.

All those things are rolled up into our about-time. If we write down nothing more than “about” to tell the reader that the date is not accurate, we leave them to try to figure it out from any clues we leave behind. In the worst case, the reader is forced to guess.

We have different sorts of errors. We either know what they are, or have ways of estimating. We can tell our readers the rationale behind those errors. Instead we write “about.” Sometimes our tools make it hard to do anything else. I guess that we could do better.

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When a Family Dies

By Daniel Hubbard | November 15, 2015

A few days ago I was reading a compiled genealogy that speculated about an epidemic. It is a quite reasonable speculation. Several members of an extended family as well as some neighbors all died in the space of a few weeks. What the contagion was, or even if the speculation is correct at all, may turn out to be unknowable. It was a frontier area, and the records implying death seem to be, at least in part, probate records, which will not give the cause of death.

In other research, I’ve found outbreaks of typhoid, and “red fever,” a disease once used as a cause of death in Sweden that is now known to correspond to any one of several highly contagious fevers. Researching one of my own ancestors revealed that he had lost two families; both times in the space of a few days. The first to a combination of meningitis and malaria, the second to scarlet fever. When we find many family members that die close to one another, disease is an obvious suspect. It isn’t the only one.

poison gasMore recently I’ve been reading an obscure Chicago newspaper from the early 1900s. I’ve been looking for anything to explain a man’s disappearance. Crime, bigamy, divorce, and death don’t generally make up my favorite reading, but they could all explain the shattering of a family. There is one thing that probably is not related to my disappearing man, but I keep reading it, over and over—families being found dead. The reason was not disease. The reason was their lighting. Gas lighting to be specific.

Today when we think of gas being piped into our homes, we are thinking of natural gas, methane, a hydrocarbon. The main risk is that in case of a leak, there could be an explosion. So that we have a chance to notice those leaks, a tiny amount of another gas with a terrible smell is added. When those newspapers were written, the gas was not natural gas, it was almost certainly a form of carburetted water gas. Water gas was produced by passing steam through superheated coal. For any chemistry fans, the reaction is-

H2O + C -> H2 + CO

If you aren’t a chemistry fan, CO, is a very bad thing. It is carbon monoxide. It burns well, and combined with H2 (hydrogen gas) and small hydrocarbons (the “carburetted” part of the name of the gas) it was useful for cooking and lighting. If water gas went unburned, if it leaked into the room instead of providing light, it caused confusion, fainting, and, fairly quickly, death. Before my last few days of reading, if I saw several family members with very similar death dates, I would have thought of disease, or perhaps fire. Now, if those deaths occurred in a city, in the age of gaslight, I will think of something else as well.

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Shattered Families

By Daniel Hubbard | November 8, 2015

There is a type of genealogical problem that I think of as the shattered family. Something goes wrong, often a combination of poverty and the death of a parent, and family seems to fly apart, like shattering glass.

One of the best ways to recognize the person that one is researching, is to find them in a group that you recognize. Finding that one person is good, but is it the right person? Finding a whole group of people that all makes sense together is much better.

That is why the shattered family can cause such problems. One child with the right name, living in a household with people that aren’t clearly related, is interesting, but is it the right child? One shattered family that I have investigated eventually showed a pattern of possible siblings all living in different villages within thirty or so miles from one another. Were they the right children? It seems likely, but with only the surname, age and location to go by, it seems more like a shadow of what might have been.

In another family I have a passenger list, that lists that gives the names and ages of the father, the mother, their children and several people with the mother’s maiden names as their surname. In 1850 when I should have been able to look at the family one year after immigration, there is nothing. Rather, almost nothing. There is a girl working as a servant in Milwaukee that might be one of the daughters. Ten years later, there was a suspicious cluster of people in Milwaukee with the right surnames to be relatives, and the shattered family had been glued back together in Michigan. The mother and many of the children formed a household. For the father, I have found no death record, no probate, no grave, no entry in a mortality schedule, but by 1860 his wife was a widow. She was probably a widow by 1850.

In another case I was lucky enough to have a few letters that gave an idea of what was happening. The children’s father had died and left them destitute. Their mother remarried but it is clear from the letters, that something was seriously wrong in the new household. It was never made clear, but reading between the lines led to the conclusion that their stepfather did not want them around. The mother was also chronically ill, though the nature of the illness was left unsaid. One letter gave the names of the family that an eleven-year-old daughter was working for. Later I found that daughter using the surname of that family. Another letter told of the grandmother helping by taking the eight-year-old son on a trip to see if she could find someone to take him. Never sure of how much longer she had, the mother was lamenting that if a family was found for him, she would probably never see her son again.

That kind of view into a shattering family is so very rare. It gives a precious glimpse of what might have happened when other families shattered.

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“If Any” and The Null Hypothesis

By Daniel Hubbard | November 1, 2015

There is a concept in statistical testing called “the null hypothesis.” It would be somewhat difficult to perform experiments on our ancestors to check statistically what records they would leave behind under different conditions and learn the probabilities of those records being preserved to our time. Simply put, we can’t do statistical tests on our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of the null hypothesis isn’t useful for genealogists.

Let’s say you are interested in an ancestor named John Doe. You know about when he was born and approximately where he lived. You look for records of a John Doe that match what you think that you know about him. You collect records but gradually realize that there is no way that they can all be records for the same person. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it turns out to be pretty obvious that there are four different men named John Doe represented by your records. At that point, it might be tempting to wonder “Which of these men is my ancestor?” Is that really the right question to ask?

There is a hidden assumption in the question “Which of these men is my ancestor?” The assumption is that one of them actually is your ancestor. It isn’t obvious that is true. The null hypothesis would be that none of the men whose records you have collected is your ancestor. That is an important idea to check. Even if it isn’t done consciously, the alternative is to take the man who fits best and add him to your family tree. Yet that fit might not be good enough to rule out that null hypothesis that all the men on your list are wrong. There is one little phrase, just two words, that can be added to the question that help us to remember all the possibilities—”if any.” The question becomes “Which of these men, if any, is my ancestor?” Those two little words may not put you on the right road, but they at least help to make sure that you don’t accidentally close off the right road.


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Genealogical Illusions

By Daniel Hubbard | October 25, 2015

We don’t actually experience reality. We experience our model of reality plus some immediate sensory inputs. The inputs serve not just to fill in the immediate holes in our model but also to update the model as well. That sounds a lot like research. We gather information until we can build up a model of what happened. Inputs that come in after the model is constructed may reinforce the model, adjust the model, or significantly alter the model. When our model and reality have subtle mismatches, the result can be an optical illusion.

Squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray.

Squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray.

The documentary that got me thinking showed an image of a checkerboard with dark and light gray squares. The image also contained a cylinder which cast a shadow across the board. We have no trouble deciding which squares are dark and which are light, in or out of the shadow. Yet the “light” squares in the shadow are exactly the same as the dark squares outside the shadow. We see only partially with our eyes. The rest we “see” with our model of the world. Our model of the world prevents us from being confused by the shadow and missing the pattern of light and dark squares. At the same time our model is fooling us into thinking that the light shaded square in the shadow appears to be lighter than the well lit dark square, even when they are exactly the same. Magicians take advantage of our mixture of model based seeing and actual sensor input all the time.

Genealogical Illusions

How much does our model influence our research? Context can play a big role when interpreting subtle data. Differences in culture between our model and our ancestors actual cultures can lead us to think that things that were highly improbable when they could easily have happened. Does our model tell us that if a record doesn’t exist, then the event that it would have recorded never happened? If it does, is that right or is our model missing some known record loss? Lately, I’ve been working in some records of a court of petty sessions in Ireland. Does a man being no longer recorded in them tell me that he moved away, or does it tell me that he got better at keeping his pigs in their pens, or perhaps that the constable, who perhaps really did not like him, died or moved away? Am I looking at a genealogical illusion?

The cure for illusions, both optical and genealogical, is to carefully check, and not relay on our models when things seem questionable. I have a lot more checking to do in those Irish court records. On the other hand, I’ve already done a measurement on the checkerboard illusion above. The RGB color values of squares A and B are R=102, G=102, B=102 for both. Our model, useful as it is for seeing the pattern, fails when it comes to seeing the actual shade.


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The Chicago Cubs and Deep Time

By Daniel Hubbard | October 11, 2015

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

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

The turn of the last century brought the somewhat ominously named “dead ball era” when hits were few and runs were hard to come-by. I certainly hope that my great-grandfather was a fan by then. Supposedly the Chicago Colts, as they were then known, had so many young players, that they got the nickname “Cubs.” Their star pitcher was the aptly nicknamed Mordecai “three finger” Brown. Their double play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” is still remembered even if people don’t know who they were or even for what team they played. In 1906 the Cubs won 116 games, and recorded the highest winning percentage ever for a major league baseball team by winning over 76% of the time. In 1907 they won the fourth ever World Series, and they won again in 1908, and have not managed to win the World Series since. The longest championship drought in professional sports currently stands at 106 years. Perhaps that is where some of my genealogist’s appreciation of deep time originates. Most people think in terms of years, or perhaps, decades. Cub fans and genealogists must think in terms of centuries.

Well, great-grandpa, as I write this, the Cubs have re-earned their nickname with lots of very young players, they have a pitcher whose statistics look like something out of the dead ball era, and it may be October but the drought-meter is stubbornly refusing to click over to 107 years. Tonight their pitcher drove in a run in the postseason with a sacrifice bunt. The last time a Cub pitcher did that was 1906. We’ll see how it goes, you and I.

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Corrupt Ancestors (and Other Hard Drive Problems)

By Daniel Hubbard | October 4, 2015

This will be a short and belated post. A few days ago, my ancestors became corrupt. I didn’t find them in prison or court records. I found that they were imprisoned on my computer’s hard drive. Presumably they were doing hard time.

When I would normally have been writing something genealogical, I was instead erasing a hard drive. Not something for the faint of heart, but it might have been much worse. Let’s cover the moral of the story first-

Back up your data.

If necessary, to convince yourself that this is important, follow these steps-

  1. Take a small USB hard drive that is not currently connected to anything.
  2. Hold it by the end of the cord away from the hard drive.
  3. Lift it so that the drive dangles at eye level.
  4. Set the disk gently swinging, left and right.
  5. Repeat quietly to yourself, “I will stop swinging this disk like a nincompoop, and instead use it to backup my data.”
  6. You can stop swinging the disk once your trance becomes deep enough to overcome all anti-backup inertia and actually back up your data.

The worst part of my hard disk problem was the time wasted trying to fix it some clever way. When I eventually realized that the best thing to do was to bite the bullet, take a deep breath and make use of my backups, it went fairly smoothly. I’m pretty paranoid about backing up. I have and incremental backup that is updated every hour to an array of hard drives. Even if one drive fails, the data is still there. I also have a clone that is updated daily. A clone is a special type of backup, not a new offspring type that you can set in your genealogy software. When all else fails, a clone can be used as a boot drive for starting your computer. I couldn’t start my computer from its drive but I could start it just fine from the clone. I knew of a few files that had been updated, so once I got the computer started, I could find them on my hard drive and copy them to a thumb drive, just to be sure I had them.

Then I did the scary thing. I erased my computer’s hard drive. Even if you are sure that you have everything on a back up, pressing that erase button is hard. Once it was erased, I copied my clone to it and my computer was fine. All I needed to do was to restore the few files that I had updated. Now it starts up just like normal.

Let’s repeat the moral of the story-

Back up your data.

Your flesh and blood ancestors may never have needed a “Get out of jail free” card, but you never know when your digital ancestors might become imprisoned if you don’t back up.

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Spam! Spam! Spam!

By Daniel Hubbard | September 27, 2015


The Monty Python sketch that gave us our term for unwanted email.

Ancestors, everyone has them, and spam, everyone gets it. So, I hope you’re asking yourself, where’s the connection, beside the ubiquity, that is.

A lot of the spam that I have gotten lately is of what I think of as the “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper” variety. You can send a message with that opening to a lot of people and a significant fraction of the recipients will fall into that category. How many of them will be suckered into believing in whatever prize the sender claims they have won is another matter. The point is that so many people fall into that category, that it can be used at random with a significant chance of being right. You might also get email warning you that it has been detected that your copy of Windows is in serious need of a security patch. Said patch can be downloaded by clicking on a link in the email. Once again, lots of people will be reading that email on a machine that runs Windows. Presumably some subset of them will believe it. Once again, there is a reasonably high chance that sending those emails at random will result in a large fraction of the recipients being people running Windows. Believing that it is for you personally, just because an email is addressed to “Walmart Shopper,” or that because an email is sent about Windows and you’ve got a Windows machine, that it must be legitimate, are clearly mistakes.

When we think about the implications of evidence we find in genealogical research, we need to think about coincidence and probability as well. Some evidence can be like those examples of spam. It looks legitimate on the surface, it looks like something interesting, and yet it only seems relevant. If enough people look at it, someone is bound to concluded it is close enough to be relevant. Remember, that someone might be you. Of course, to someone else it might be real evidence, but to you it is just coincidence. It might be random chance or it might be a cousin of the person for whom you’re searching, named for the same ancestor. Either way, they only way to think about these things is to think about the probabilities. What is the probability of another person with the same unusual name in the same area? Higher than you’d think if there was an earlier ancestor with that name that both people are named for.

When you get an email that opens with “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper,” you ask yourself if you are, in fact, a loyal Walmart shopper, if not, you mark it as spam. What if you really do shop at Walmart often? What if you really have an ancestor named Ichabod Wilkins? Then you take the next step and examine things more deeply.  Would Walmart send an email without any branding or mention of their website? Would Ichabod appear without any of the expected family members? Would an email from Walmart really come from What was your Ichabod Wilkins doing two states over from where he is expected to be? Would any legitimate business send you a prize claim form as a zip file in an email? Did destitute Ichabod really leave an enormous estate to a child you knew nothing about, and no one else?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on spammers. They are, perhaps, providing the best practical education in critical thinking there is, though unfortunately as a sort of natural selection by survival of the most wary.

Remember, critical thinking isn’t just good for recognizing the signs of spam, you can recognize the signs of illusory evidence about your ancestors too. So, in conclusion, please click here to download your free royal ancestor.

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Genealogy Related Injuries

By Daniel Hubbard | September 20, 2015

When I lived in Sweden, people would often joke about how a particular quirk in their thinking was a “work related injury.” It can happen to anyone. Some things become so deeply ingrained that they affect the way with think and it comes out in some odd ways.

So how does genealogy affect they way we think? Have you ever-

  1. said something like “Well, 1852 wasn’t that long ago” when a bit of history comes up during casual conversation?
  2. written the wrong century on a check?
  3. found yourself apologizing for forgetting someone’s name by telling them that, “Sorry, I’m a genealogist, I remember the names of dead people really well. It’s a good sign for you that I’ve forgotten yours.”
  4. used the word “died” when another person would have said “passed away”? (On a not so funny note, I’ve noticed this lately when people that I haven’t seen in a while ask how my father is doing. If I say that he died, there is a subtle hitch in peoples’ reactions that I don’t get when I say “He passed away.”)
  5. casually mentioned exploring cemeteries when everyone else in the conversation spent their weekend at the beach or the ballpark? Do you then wonder why they looked at you a bit funny?
  6. just assumed that everyone knows what NARA, FHL, LAC and GRO mean?
  7. written something using language that reads like it came straight out of a ca. 1880 county history?
  8. looked at a year ending in 0 and had your first thought be that it was a census year, totally independent of the context? (Canadian and U.K. readers, please substitute “1” for “0”. Come to think of it, bonus points to American readers that see dates ending in a “1” and think Canadian or U.K. census year.)
  9. anticipated the arrival in the mail of things that most people aren’t so keen on? Things like death notices and divorce proceedings?
  10. had the total at the grocery checkout, say $106.29, remind you of, say Cumberland County, Maine, Deed Indexes?

Any of that have a familiar feel to it?


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