By Daniel Hubbard | September 11, 2016
There is a story, apparently first told about 1800, that kippers could be used to throw hounds off the scent. Kippers are a sort of preserved herring. The preservation process can turn the fish reddish. An idiom was born.
In genealogy we often deal with things we think of as facts. Often the fact is not so much what was stated but that it was stated.
Nothing shows this like when we need to deal with “facts” which are contradictory. A person can’t have been born in two different places but the “facts” I’d read on the man I was hunting were just that. As seems to be standard in these circumstances, neither of those places actually exists. I had some ages that implied a few different birth years and a birth date from an obituary. The only other fact I had to deal with was that long after he immigrated as a boy, his widowed mother joined him in America and appeared in a census with him.
When he was not found in Germany where expected, and American records produced only limited clues, I thought perhaps his mother might be the key. Researching her turned up nothing more. Not one single thing. Eventually, going parish to parish in the area of Germany that most closely matched the statements about his origins turned up a birth in a parish with a name similar to the name of one of those none existent places. Everything was a match except for the mother. Her name was not quite right. As I uncovered births of her children farther and farther back in time, it became clear that she was far to old to have been the “mother” recorded in the census. A problem? No, the woman in the census was a red herring, unless, of course, I ever want to research his mother-in-law, because it looks like that is who she was.
One of the most important things to realize in genealogy is that there will be red herrings. They are a part of every genealogists diet. They need to be recognized and explained, but they don’t need to be believed. You can’t let them through you off the scent.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 24, 2016
A little while ago I was on my first vacation in years. Many puzzle pieces fit together and my family and I went back to Europe. In Rome we went to see the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is a part of the Vatican Museum, one of the world’s truly great museums. It would be hard to deny that it is the museum’s crown jewel, but I also could not help but feel that it was something of a curse. It so dominated visitors’ thoughts that some of the finest objects of world culture were, at best, brief distractions as a crush of single-minded humanity flowed toward the chapel. There were few if any chances to pause and reflect on amazing things from the past. After waiting many hours in 95 degree heat in order to get in just before the museum closed, it is hard to deny that there was some sense to that rushing river of humanity. I can’t help though but be saddened at the thought of all that was missed as we moved as fast as we could, shoulder to shoulder, toward the one and only goal.
Genealogy can be like that, but it shouldn’t be. There is nothing wrong with having a goal, in fact it is generally a good thing—if it is the right sort of goal. Finding the home village of an elusive immigrant ancestor is a fine goal. Testing the truth of the family story that has had you intrigued for years is a fine goal. We often go into research with a single goal. It can give us focus, but it can also blind us. The more distant the goal is from where we are in our research, the greater the temptation to forge on, full steam ahead, instead of enjoying the farmers and millers, the saints and the scoundrels that we would encounter along the way, if we only took the time. Research should be thorough to be as sure as possible that it is correct, but there is more to it than that. Whatever you might consider the crown jewel of your genealogy to be, a Mayflower passenger, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, or an officer at Waterloo, all those men and women in between have lives and stories worth understanding. Genealogy can be like traveling, it isn’t just the destination that counts, there is also the journey that takes us there. You don’t want to finally reach your Sistine Chapel, look back, and realize that you have no idea how you got there, or what you might have missed along the way.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 4, 2016
Sometimes when people are getting started in genealogy, they don’t think about the possibility that relatives can turn up in places where they aren’t expected. One very famous American lady was an immigrant from France, born in the 1880s. My family recently paid a visit to her slightly younger sister, who still lives in Paris.
The family resemblance is striking, something genealogists often look for in old family photographs. She isn’t nearly as tall as her sister and unlike her sister’s tablet, which reads “July 4, 1776,” hers reads “IV Juillet 1776 = XIV Juillet 1789” to commemorate both the American and French Revolutions, and the connections between them.
It all goes to show, that you never know where relatives might turn up and knowing a bit of history can give you hints about how and why a family might be more spread than you might otherwise expect.
So, Happy 4th and 14th of July!Twitter It!
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…Twitter It!
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?
What 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.Twitter It!
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.Twitter It!
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.
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.Twitter It!
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.
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.Twitter It!
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.
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.Twitter It!
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.”
Surprise 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.
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.Twitter It!
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