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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.

Alphabetical

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.

Phonetic

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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Genealogy on Little Cat Feet

By Daniel Hubbard | February 2, 2014

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
-Fog by Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916

Often in genealogy, one takes great, generation-long strides through the records. If there is census data, perhaps our strides that are merely a decade long. In small towns and villages, that can be enough, though gathering more records will make the story richer.

In a city  “stormy, husky, brawling” those great strides fail. People get lost in the multitude. They share their names with dozens.  They move from tenement to tenement and job to job faster than their peasant fathers could bring in a harvest. Clerks and enumerators stumble over immigrant tongues and record their misadventures.

All the hustle and bustle of the city forces our genealogy to slow down and travel on little cat feet. Through city directories we take tiny, year-by-year steps. 1879- father is a locksmith, daughter is a clerk, son is a plumber. 1878- father is a filer of saws, son and daughter disappear, only the address allows the step from ’79 to ’78. 1877 a new address, father is not listed, daughter is a clerk with a misspelled name but the son is a plumber at the same address as his sister; another step taken. 1876- father is a locksmith again, daughter is unlisted and son is a gas fitter and their address has changed again but father and son are at the same residence. We’ve shuffled back another year. 1875- no siblings, no residence, no occupations, only the father’s work address appears but it is the same as 1876. Their immigration is pushed back another year and so the little steps continue…

I’ve spent the day in Chicago city directories, researching hog butchers, tool makers and stackers of wheat. A day of genealogy on little cat feet.

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What Goes Around Comes Around

By Daniel Hubbard | January 26, 2014

Do you know where your data originated? Do undocumented writings support what you have found elsewhere or has been handed down in your family? Should you wonder where that data originated? Could it, in fact, be your data? Has research circled around and bitten its own tail?

 Biting Its Own Tail

An Ouroboros, the tail-devouring serpent.

An Ouroboros, the tail-devouring serpent.

I was chatting genealogy the other day before giving a talk and it turned out that the person I was speaking with and I shared a surname. Comparing notes it turned out that it was one of those cases where not just the surname lined up but the time and place as well. Judy and I could not say that we are related but it looked like a distinct possibility.

Better yet from my point of view, Judy had a book about the family and promised to check if my ancestor was listed. I can’t call my ancestor a brick wall because I am pretty sure from indirect evidence that I understand the line but it also a line that gives me the feeling that I need more information. It was a line that was researched by an aunt of mine and she always presented it to me as a line where one could figuratively smell the answer but proof was always just beyond her grasp. I haven’t worked on it for a long time but I have added a few key points that strengthen the smell of that answer. Still the thought of a book about the family that might point me in a new direction was exciting.

A few days ago I got a phone call from Judy and she had the book out and thought she could look up my ancestor for me. Transmitting genealogy by phone when all the names are the same isn’t easy but she managed to find a person that was definitely an ancestor of mine and then worked her way back through the book and found that what I thought was true was also how the line worked in the book. Unfortunately, there were no sources listed but she said she would scan the pages that I thought sounded interesting and maybe I would recognize a clue.

A few days later I got an email from the author of the book. Judy had contacted her. She explained that she was the author but not a researcher herself. She had inherited papers from her mother that she (bless her soul) combed through, organized and published. She told me that her mother had not done this particular research but that it had been done by a woman named Melva with whom her mother had corresponded many years ago.

Melva was my Aunt Melva. I have her research papers in a filing cabinet near my desk. The book will not contain anything on that line that I don’t already have the sources for somewhere. Back when she had corresponded she had apparently been more confident that she had solved the problem than she was later when she talked to me. In the correspondence it was solid. Years later when she showed it to me she felt, rightly, that it was shaky. Now, it had come around and bitten its own tail.

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Not Omniscient

By Daniel Hubbard | January 19, 2014

Last week after a presentation one of the audience members came up to the front to say hello. She said that after hearing my introduction she had to tell me that she had been a physicist in the 1950s and that she understood the connection between being a physicist and being a genealogist. She added that in her experience, people didn’t really get that. I thanked her and agreed that I always needed to explain that transition. (I also made a mental note that I was in the presence of someone who had broken through a glass ceiling that was certainly much stronger then than it is now—very cool).

My normal explanation of the transition revolves around how it takes time to develop the mindset that research requires. Turning data every which way and really analyzing it does not come naturally either and must be learned. Learning that everything exists within a context and that framework needs to be understood before new data and new hypothesis can be processed is another task. Many years of physics does that.

The Opposite of Omniscience*

Today as I wrote a client report, I found myself suddenly hitting the back arrow to add a few words without really thinking about why. It was a reflex that had taken over. I’ve hit the back arrow for the same reason before but this time I stopped to think about why. I had written something along the lines of “there is no evidence,” then moved back with the cursor to the point between “no” and “evidence” and added the word “known.” Sometimes the phrase “no evidence” can be appropriate. It was not in what I was typing. The research was still very sketchy, the main characters very hazy. The fact that I needed to express was not that evidence does not exist in an absolute sense. Rather the fact is that nothing has yet been found. That only might indicate that there is nothing to find. It can be an important distinction. A researcher can know enough to consider something proven or disproven but the researcher is never omniscient. A researcher must state not just what has been done and what has been learned but also the possibilities for error and the sources of uncertainty. In my years as a physicist, much time was spent deriving error margins for data and calculations. It is not the most exciting of tasks but it is a very important one. Do it enough and it becomes a life lesson.

*When I started to think about writing this post, I tried to think of a good antonym for “omniscient.” The more I thought, the more I wondered if there is one. My thesaurus wasn’t much help. Google turned up some interesting discussions of what the antonym might be. Many suggestions were along the line of “ignorant.” Omniscient though, is an absolute. Its opposite might be the opposing absolute but it might also be anything in between, anything not absolute. Research can start with near ignorance and progress to knowledge but never to omniscience. Research works its way from one type of antonym to the other.

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Records that Are Something More

By Daniel Hubbard | January 12, 2014

As genealogists we mine records for information. Sometimes that is how we see records—as information mines. There is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Data about our ancestors is what we need to rediscover the past and we extract it from records.

It is important though to go beyond those specifics that the records give us about select people. Who else is mentioned in the record? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the record? Where did the information originate? How long after the fact was each bit of data recorded? Does the information mean what we think it does or have words shifted in meaning or were there special instructions to the creator of the record that would alter our appraisal if we knew them? We also have to think about the historical context of the record. Why was it made? What laws governed its creation?

Deeper Interactions

There can be more to our interaction with a document that the simple extraction of data and analysis of context. Those are wholly rational activities. A document can stir emotions as well. Often we feel a sense of reverence for a record. A sense of awe will come over just about any genealogist who comes in contact with a long sought document. Even a scan of a document can have that effect if it suddenly solves a mystery.

There are times though when feelings of awe might be tempered by the context of the document. Slave manifests and prison camp death lists conjure up other feelings. This week, for some client research, I used a type of record that I had not used before—official late 19th century registers of Jewish births. I have not yet found specifically why these  separate Jewish registers were kept but one can wonder. The timing, and the fact that I am reading the records in German, leaves me wondering as well about the use they might have been put a generation later. Yet, with whatever mixed feelings come with some documents, they still bear the names of ancestors. They still contain the voices of the past.

 

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A Place is not Just a Place

By Daniel Hubbard | January 5, 2014

One of the thoughts that occurs to me regularly is how tricky the word “place” can be. We use it without really thinking about what lies underneath. It seems like such a simple concept. I’m in one place as I write. You are in another as you read. Those places have names. They have latitudes and they have longitudes. Surely those things specify a place with all the precision that one could possibly want. Nevertheless, I don’t think that they do.

I ponder this every time that I think about how I work and how I organize. It seems to me that we can mean at least three things when we use the word “place.” We think of a place as having some important properties. A place generally has a name. It can be found at a specific location. In genealogy we are well aware that the place in question will also sit somewhere within a jurisdictional hierarchy. The trouble is, none of those ways of thinking about places really work.

The Concept of Place

At least when I think of a place with genealogy in mind, what I think of is the smallest locality that makes sense. Addresses are usually unknown or, far enough back, didn’t even exist. What that smallest locality would be depends on the region. It might be a town, township or townland. It might be a parish, county or hundred. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that it is as the most specific that anyone is likely to be when asked “Where are you from?” If you could go back in time and ask you ancestors that question, the answer would be the name that corresponds to the place.

So isn’t knowing the name the same as knowing the place? How would your ancestor that was born in New Amsterdam and died in New York in the house of his birth answer that question? If an ancestor born in Poontoosuc answered that question with “Pittsfield,” would you tell her that she was wrong just because the name had changed?

Places change name all the time yet we still think of them as the same place. Our concept of place may include the place’s name but when push comes to shove, the concept of place goes beyond the name. When recording a place, we have little choice but to record the name and yet multiple names may all indicate the same place in ways that won’t always be clear to the reader or to the software where we make our record.

Jurisdictional Place

When genealogists write down the name of a place, we should write down the whole jurisdictional path from village to nation. To one way of thinking, a different path means a different place. My database records a new place if the chain of jurisdictions changes.

Recording that hierarchy is important, it helps us to avoid ambiguities. Confusing Manhattan in New York with Manhattan in Kansas would not be good. Recording that chain also helps us to know where records might be located because each level of the hierarchy has the potential to create useful records. Do those changes in jurisdiction really warrant declaring a place to be different from an earlier or later place with the same name and in the same physical location? Continuity of everything but jurisdiction argues against that. Whatever a place is, it is not something that changes completely with a change to a county boundary.

Physical Place

What about physical location? Isn’t that something that can be used to say that this is one place and that is another? After all, even  earthquakes only change physical locations by a few feet. With one latitude measurement and one longitude measurement a place ought to be defined. Unfortunately, no.

Niobara, Nebraska- 1881, flooding forced the entire town to be moved to higher ground southwest of its original site. 1974, rising groundwater levels forced the town to be moved a second time to its third and present location.

Osborn, Ohio- 1921, flooding problems that reached their worst in the Great Dayton Flood led to the construction of the Huffman Dam. The town of Osborn and the railroad that served it were moved 2 miles to higher ground next to Fairfield, Ohio to make way for the dam. Houses were loaded onto trucks and hauled to the new location. Twenty-nine years later the town ceased to exist as such when it merged with Fairfield to form the city of Fairborn.

Shawneetown, Illinois- 1937, moved three miles after the Great Ohio River Flood.

Valdez, Alaska- 1967, town moved 4 miles to higher ground after the magnitude 9.2 earthquake and tsunamis of 1964.

English, Indiana- 1990, floods forced the town to move to higher ground.

Pattonsburg, Missouri- 1993, the Grand River reached 12 feet above flood stage. The town was moved to higher ground to the north.

Even as I write, the city of Kiruna, Sweden with 18,000 residents is in the process of being moved two miles because mining is producing underground cracks that threaten the city were the miners themselves live. Years from now, when the process is finished and the fissures have reached the old location, the city will still be Kiruna. It just won’t be where it used to be.

Places move and yet they are still the same place. The people are the same. The government is the same. Even the homes may be the same but the position on the map is different. It is a strange realization that a “place” can move to a different “place” and yet still be the same “place.”

What is a Place?

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then how do we record it? A place is all those things and yet not really any of them. We can only say what we mean by a place by putting together the history of its name changes, jurisdiction changes and even location changes. In principle, it is only that whole collection of history that can indicate that two people born a century apart in places with different names, and even in different states were, in fact, born not in two different places but in the very same place.

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then what is it? It is certainly far more complicated than one would naively expect. As near as I can figure, a place is defined by our feeling of continuity. Enough continuity and it is the same place. Not enough continuity and we decide that it is a different place.

A place is perhaps a member of that category of things that are answers to the question “Where are you from?” that are interconnected by statements like “Oh, that’s really the same place.”

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The Slow Days of Yule

By Daniel Hubbard | January 1, 2014

Life seems to slow down this time of year. It is a bit of a paradox because, of course, Christmas is one of the most hectic of times. Once the shopping madness is over and cooking gives way to warming leftovers, the year comes full circle and there is time to breathe before the holidays give way to just regular January.

Coming full circle is an appropriate way of thinking about this time of year. The English word “Yule” is used as a synonym for Christmas. In Scandinavia the normal word for Christmas is something like “Yule.” In Swedish it is “Jul,” which is pronounced approximately the way English speakers pronounce “Yule.” The original meaning of Yule is more clear in Swedish than in English. The main difference between “Jul” and the Swedish word for “wheel” is a single silent letter. Yule is related to the words wheel and cycle and circle. It is the time when the year comes full circle. One year ends and the next begins. The days grow slowly shorter and shorter then turn around and grow ever so slightly longer. The year has come full circle. We look back on the year that has passed and look forward to the year that is yet to be.

For me this is the time of year that I take a breath and think about how I work, how I organize and how I could do both better. I straighten out my files. I take more time than usual to organize my office. I upgrade software that I have put off upgrading because I didn’t want to disturb projects. I start the new year with everything as up to date as possible. Then I think about what the changes mean to my workflow. What can I now do better? What do I need to do differently? What software can I write myself to help me get from new program A to new feature B? This year I’m starting with several new programs, updated database software and a new operating system. They all bring new possibilities and therefore, maybe new ways of working.

Take a deep breath. Get your genealogy under control. Christmas is over. The year has come full circle. The old year is gone. Happy 2014!

 

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