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Pure Research

By Daniel Hubbard | December 20, 2015

This is part 2 of a multi-part post. Part one was If at First You Succeed, Try, Try Again.

Another reason to keep searching, even after finding “the answer,” is that if we only look for the answers, we are limited by our ability to imagine the questions.

In the sciences, there are the concepts of pure research and applied research. In pure research, one usually has no precise idea of what the results might be used for, only that a hole in our knowledge exists. When the British Chancellor of the Exchequer visited the laboratory of Michael Faraday, perhaps the first scientist to have his work publicly funded, he said, “This is all very interesting, but what good is it?” It was pure research, so Faraday responded, “Sir, I do not know.” Then he added, “but someday you will tax it.” That question was limited by imagination. Faraday didn’t know the answer but he cast a wide net and could feel that something would come of it. By the way, the thing Faraday was in the process of discovering was electromagnetism. From spark plugs to iPhones, it is what separates our world from the world of the steam engine. Not bad for research that had no known use at the time.

For some ancestors we may feel lucky to find birth, marriage and death dates. Then we move on. It is true that for some ancestors, those things might be all we ever know. For others, those might be the answers we want, so they become the basis for the questions we ask. If they are the only questions, their answers will be all we ever learn. Sometimes pure research, without predefined questions, is the way to get the right answers.

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If at First You Succeed, Try, Try Again

By Daniel Hubbard | December 14, 2015

Often when we do a deep and thorough search for records it is because less deep and less thorough searching has not given a result. We search until we find what we were looking for and then search no further.

There is another, and in the end much better, reason to make that thorough search. What if that first, easily (or not so easily) found record is incomplete and you settle for it? What if it is misleading or wrong? Part of the point of a thorough search is to avoid assuming that the first thing is both correct and all there is. Not so long ago, I found a man in a death register. The register gave me his place of birth and it was consistent with a couple of census entries I had found. Wonderful! It would need to be corroborated, of course. His birth and the making of that entry were separated in time by eighty years, but at least it gave me a starting point. It would have been the wrong starting point. I searched for a death certificate as well and when I found it, it gave a totally different place for his birth. The same name, the same death, the same county’s records, but the places of birth were 500 miles apart in different states. Hmm… What about cemetery records? They agreed with the death certificate. Every other indication, hint, and clue I’ve found since, as well as history, all lead me to believe that his entry in the death register is wrong and his death certificate is correct. It is good to keep looking, even after you have “the answer.”

I found a man I was looking for in the census. He was living with his parents, which I didn’t expect, but the rest of the information was a very good match. So my search, at least for that census year, was over. Except, I found a man with the same name living with his wife and son. The information did not match particularly well with the man I was looking for. Who was the right person? Both of them. They were the same man. He was enumerated twice. One enumeration found him where he should not have been recorded but gave correct biographical information. The other recorded him at his actual home but was full of bent truths. Both were useful, but only one should have existed. It is good to keep looking, even after you have “the answer.”

 

 

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A Time to Think about Time

By Daniel Hubbard | December 8, 2015

Getting into the minds of the people I research is important to me. It can help lead the way to discoveries. It also makes those people so much more real. It also helps to remind me that our ancestors were a fascinating combination of just-like-us and totally alien. If we assume that they were all the one or all the other, we will certainly be all wrong.

Today we look at the clock on the wall, the clock on the microwave, the oven, the car dashboard, the coffeemaker, the stove fan (at least in my kitchen), the computer screen… If none of those is present, a wristwatch or phone probably is. None of them even requires the old daily ritual of inserting the key and winding the clock.

This time of year reminds me of a different way, a way of marking time. The little Grinch in my head points out that a steady flow of Christmas related ads and spam marks the time by trickling into my inbox like the the sand flowing in an hour glass—117 unread items, must be 10 am… If I tell that little Grinch to go away and let me enjoy the season, my mind can get to other, older ways of telling the time. The kids always look forward to the evening lighting of the Advent candle that marks of the time by burning away a little wax every day.  In the morning they set about finding and opening the doors on the Advent calendar that makes a game out of the simple task of marking the time and indicating the date.

320px-Advent-wreathThe lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath reminds me that time can be experienced in intervals of weeks rather than minutes and seconds. The pace is clearly something out of the past. It represents a different way of thinking about time. Advent starts on no one date and lasts different numbers of days, depending on the year. It is a tradition, an observance, and a reminder of the way our ancestors experienced time—uneven, drifting, slower than the blinking LED numbers on my microwave.

Tonight I passed a window with a menorah. Its candles marking days that begin at sunset and that start from a date set by the cycles of both the sun and moon. None of my ancestors marked time in just that way, but I have researched people who did. It was yet another reminder of the different ways that time has been, and still is, seen.

All these things, at this one time of year, cause us to stop for a moment and consciously mark the time. Something that was once so normal, a part of our ancestors lives, that now we rarely do. Take the time to notice.

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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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