By Daniel Hubbard | December 30, 2012
Last year I left seriousness behind in a parody post for Christmas Eve. This year’s holiday post is a bit of a parody too but I was in more serious mood while writing it and it came out much less silly. I could almost imagine singing this. So with apologies to the great Robert Burns-
The Genealogist’s Auld Lang Syne
Should auld relations be forgot,
and simply left behind?
Should auld relations be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
We’ll find those tattered records yet,
for auld lang syne.
And you will find great-grandpa soon,
and surely I’ll find mine,
We’ll stand at Ellis Island yet,
for auld lang syne.
We two have sought among the tomes,
and sifted clues so fine ;
But we’ve squandered just as many hints,
since auld lang syne.
We two have wandered ‘twixt the graves,
from morn to past our time,
And read these many a weathered stone,
for auld lang syne.
And here’s my tale of bygone days,
and give us a tale o’ thine!
We’ll ponder all their myst’ries, dear,
for auld lang syne.
“Auld lang syne” means “old long since” or, less literally but more meaningfully, “bygone days.” Happy New Year and good luck with your “auld lang syne.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 23, 2012
Once again the world has failed to end on schedule. Now I guess I’d better write a blog post.
I love calendars, I’m not equally fond of the end of the world. I love using calendar peculiarities to solve genealogical problems, I don’t like the thought of my data being engulfed by a sea of fire or whatever the apocalypse du jour happens to be. Where the idea that a calendar cycle coming to an end would signal the end of the world isn’t something that I’m really clear on. I suppose it starts with the impression that the calendar that we use just seems to run on and on implying that perhaps we were not clever enough to figure out when it would end and after which we wouldn’t need to track time any longer. That another calendar does not seem to do that must mean that they (the Maya) had some secret knowledge. Of course we have calendar cycles within our calendar as well. They just don’t seem so mystical to us.
I won’t predict the end of the world based on the ominous sounding “weekend” but we shouldn’t be so surprised by calendar cycles when we experience one every seven days. Nor is the impeding need to change our 2012 calendars for 2013 calendars particularly worrying. We have a leap year almost every four years without unease. If you study the workings of our calendar you will also learn that we have a 400 year cycle of skipped leap years. It is all fascinating and it is all useful knowledge for understanding how our ancestors viewed time and recorded time but not so good for predicting the end of the world.
Apple Picking at the Apocalypse
Have you ever thought about how our ancestors experienced predictions of the end of the world? That thought popped into my head a few days ago as the latest end approached. I love to connect the branches of people’s ancestry to the little branches of history. In my own family I happen to have a little information on it too. Back in the 1840s, a sect known as the Millerites believed that the end would come soon. First sometime between March of 1843 and March of 1844. When nothing happened, the date April 18, 1844 was considered. The appointed day came and went and a new date, October 22, 1844, was settled upon. Some Millerites decided not to waste their time with a harvest that they would never need to consume. That is where my family’s connection to the end of the world appears. the Rev. John Walborn of Middletown, Pennsylvania had two apple trees full of fruit just waiting to be picked but he saw no reason to bother. My distant relative, Rev. Walborn’s neighbor Michael Brestle, offered to pick the apples if Walborn let him keep half for his efforts. Walborn replied “No, you shall do no such thing; gather them and keep them all. I shall not want them, neither will you.” Michael picked 8 bushels of apples October 21 and lived to enjoy them.
By Daniel Hubbard | December 16, 2012
Sometimes the path we walk with our ancestors is a bit convoluted. Sometimes that is an understatement. Often we reach a dead end and wonder why. Sometimes, though the path is correct, here and there our clues to our ancestors’ strange trajectories can turn out to be the reddest of herrings.
Every virtue has a downside and having the imagination to consider unusual or odd solutions is a virtue. Its downside is that one will occasionally be led astray. Every hypothesis states a possibility and implicitly asks the question, “Is this right?” Gradually, those hypotheses begin to become accepted as fact but that question is still there. What if the question is rephrased, “Is this leading me astray?”
I’ve been working through a genealogy and one part gave me a bad feeling. It was nothing terrible, just something that might have been a clue for further work seemed odd. Before and after were fine but somewhere in the middle it felt like a red herring had made its mark, a family seemed to move a long way only to move back. That happens. In this case it didn’t fit any trend that would help to make sense of the move. The people in their new residence felt subtly different, yet oddly similar. Possible, yet disconcerting.
I decided to look for things that would be impossible if all was well. The first few things turned up nothing. Then the man in question turned up at point B when he was already known to be back at point A. He was there at point B living with his wife who had died. Hmm…
If something isn’t clearly true, sometimes it might prove to be clearly false if looked at differently. I think of looking for that different angle as “Trying the not.” That is, trying what ought to be impossible.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 9, 2012
The other day, a link that I clicked at just the wrong moment was dead by the time my internet connection was brought back to life hours later. I saw a number that you don’t generally want to see on the web, 404. My page was not found. But this 404 page was pretty informative. It allowed me to read stories about other people and things that weren’t found, Amelia Earhardt, Jimmy Hoffa, “Your luggage” (far worse than any internet delivered 404 message), those 18.5 minutes of Watergate tapes, Atlantis and Waldo.
I thought that 404 would be quite reasonable as an ahnentafel number. Ancestor 404 would be pretty far back, so that could really be a missing ancestor. In the binary system, 404 is written as 110010100 and those digits can be converted into that ancestor’s identity. It would be your mother’s fathers’ father’s mother’s father’s mother’s father’s father, if I got it right. That is a long way back and, sure enough, in my case he is missing. I have no idea who that man was. He lies deep in one of the Irish branches of my family.
Error 404 on the web also is an indication that something you had every reason to believe would be there, is not there. You clicked a link to nowhere, a broken link. It is something like a broken promise. You should have instantly seen something interesting and instead you get nothing.
What if I could just click on a link to my mother then click a link to her father then to his father and so on, clicking my way to ancestor 404? That would be a thrill but would we really want it to be that easy? We tend to cherish those things that were difficult to find and that are revealed gradually. A mystery movie that was trivial and lasted 30 seconds would not be spellbinding. Genealogy usually is spellbinding. Even once a part is compiled, the twists and turns taken by many strands as they weave from document to document are still spellbinding. It is spellbinding because it can be difficult, gradual, complex and subtle. At its best, it becomes sublime.
Clicking a link isn’t difficult, gradual, complex or subtle. It isn’t sublime. I’m glad, in a way, that I don’t know who ancestor 404 is and I can’t just click my way there. It will take effort to find him, if I ever do. He may remain a mystery, the goal of a quest. Or, if he is found, he will be a valued discovery and his parents, 808 and 809, would then be just beyond reach, tantalizing, waiting to be researched. There is always the next step on the quest. “404- Ancestor not found” isn’t such a bad thing. Who is your “ancestor 404″?Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 2, 2012
Heinrich Schliemann is not a name that rolls off the English speaking tongue and his name probably doesn’t appear among your ancestors but I think that he has some interesting things to say about the genealogical research we do. Heinrich did research as well, though not genealogical. Even so, he started with oral history, exactly what family historians tend to use at the beginning. We need to talk with relatives to see what stories they might remember. Any relative could have heard something that no one else alive remembers. Nevertheless, the older relatives are often the best ones for older stories. They remember things that were never passed on to younger generations. Heinrich did the equivalent of starting with a very old relative, a very old relative indeed.
The Next Step
If we don’t focus on his type of research but instead on the methodology, Heinrich’s next step was to rush. That is not a word one wants associated with research. Sure, it is possible to work quickly, efficiently and thoroughly. The problem with rushing is that it means leaving off that last word, “thoroughly.”
Heinrich had an idea that most of his colleagues did not believe. Perhaps that made him extra determined to get an answer quickly. He did get an answer in short order but did he get the right answer? Well, yes and no. He did the equivalent of connecting his genealogy to the right family but in the wrong way and even to a very wrong generation. He is even suspected of faking some of his finds in order to heighten his reputation.
He managed to become famous. He still is famous. His reputation, on the other hand is hardly what it once was.
He is the man who discovered Troy.
The Mad Rush
Heinrich’s oral history was not an interview with grandma. It was the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. Though perhaps less important to you personally than the bombshell that grandma dropped the last time you talked to her, the Iliad is, shall we say, quite a nice bit of oral history. Most scholars of the day thought that it was only a story. A magnificent story to be sure, but not one based on history, oral or written. A few suspected otherwise and Heinrich was one of them. He grew up hearing stories from the Iliad read to him by his father and he knew the poem like few others. Not only was he in the small minority of people who thought that Troy could be found, he thought that it was somewhere other than where most of that minority believed that it was. He thought he had found a better match to the description in the oral history. He was right. Then things started to go wrong.
In 1871 he started digging with a small crew. They dug test shafts to see what might lie below the surface. They found not one ruined city but eleven, piled one on top of the other. Which was the city the Greeks had destroyed? Well, it was a long time ago, so he started with the lowest, meaning oldest, level. (Are your alarm bells ringing yet?) The first Troy seemed to have ended with an earthquake, not a war. What about the next level up? That city had burned. The Greeks had burned Troy, therefore, level two was the Troy of the Trojan War.
The next year Schliemann hired a larger crew and began to excavate in earnest. He was not interested in the uppermost layers, so his crew simply dug straight through them. No examination, no cataloging, just digging. An enormous trench was dug across the hill down to level two. Unfortunately, level two later proved to be one thousand years too old to be the Troy of his beloved Iliad. What they had done was to obliterate a good portion of every layer above, including the layer known as VIIa, the layer that actually was the city that had fallen to the Greeks. Layer after layer destroyed, including the layer of the Iliad in a mad rush to get to the wrong place. His discovery became a Pyrrhic victory.
Digging Straight Through Troy
Family historians are subject to the same temptation to charge toward “the solution” as fast as possible, disregarding evidence along the way. We may not disregard evidence by smashing through it with shovels and pick axes. In our case it will survive a researcher’s lack of attention but that won’t make the results of the research any better. The technique that Schliemann should have used, carefully working back in time step by step, is the same technique that we should use. It may take time. It may make you think that there has to be a faster way but a mad rush to a preconceived notion is only the way to get a quick answer. It isn’t they way to get the right answer. Don’t find yourself “digging straight through Troy.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 25, 2012
There are many, many ways to gauge the value of a genealogically interesting document. There are many terms as well—primary, secondary, original, derivative… What is often missed is that it is almost always impossible to use one of these terms for a whole document. Every statement made in a document is different. Some are in regard to things that just happened, others may be related to long ago events. Some may come from direct knowledge, others from inference.
In the end I generally think about evaluating each statement without using the standard terms but instead I think in terms of “proximity.”
One question to ask about a statement is “How long after the event was the statement made?” In other words, “How many ticks of the clock separate the event and the statement?” The longer the information sat unrecorded in someone’s memory, the greater the chance for error.
Another thing to think about is the “transmission distance.” Who is the immediate source of the information? Who recorded the information? How many people were involved in transmitting the information from eyes and ears to pen and paper? The fewer times the information was transmitted, the better.
Today we may have left behind something of the connection between distance and time. Communication is so fast that for most practical purposes it is instantaneous. Not so long ago, that was far from the case. The more steps it took to get from one place to another, the longer the time it took. When it would be a long journey to the county courthouse, the more likely it was for there to be good reasons to delay the trip and the longer the whole process required.
Information often covered distances by being repeated from person to person, so distance in space can imply not only separation in time but a longer chain of transmission involving more people. Some of the strangest tales ever told, were told by long distance travelers, who got them from someone along the way, who had once heard from a foreigner, who had been visited by a merchant…
The cultural differences that divide a witness to an event from the participants and the recorder of the event from the witness can add to the uncertainty of any statement. If there is a long transmission chain, any cultural difference anywhere along the chain can skew the final, written result. “Cultural” in this case can even shrink down to the level of whether or not a clerk in one town was familiar with the village of the witness. It is that pool of knowledge and beliefs that two people have in common. The larger that pool, the better they will understand one another. The less there is in that pool, the farther apart they are culturally and the great the risk of miscommunication.
Try as people might to be accurate, every time information is copied, there is a chance that something will go wrong. Information can be left out or misinterpreted when copying by hand. If a document was photocopied, photographed or microfilmed, a little dust and a little blur get the chance to turn “Frances walked rapidly” into “Francis talked vapidly.” The fewer copies that are between the version you have to examine and the first version created, the better.
By processing, I mean the intentional interpretation and blending of statements. In some ways processing is not good. It increases the distance from the original. An abstract might miss an important part of the sense of a statement. A translation can introduce errors. Several correct statements can be combined into one incorrect mess. There are almost an endless number of ways to go wrong. Sometimes the result is the genealogical equivalent of “processed cheese food spread.”
Yet not all processing is bad. It is what genealogists and historians do to gain understanding of the past. People and events can be reconstructed from many statements to give a more precise picture than even the most accurate statement could give. Inaccuracies in statements can be spotted and corrected by some skillful processing of all the relevant statements made in source materials. It is something like the surveyor who never stood at the top of the mountain but by taking many measurements from many locations can determine the height of the peak much more accurately than a mountaineer who stands at the summit.
There may be other criteria to ponder when accessing the proximity of a recorded statement to the event it describes. You can’t put an absolute proximity score on a statement but each type of proximity can give a useful point of view when thinking about the possible accuracy of a statement. So, how up close and personal are the statements that you have in your sources?
And now for something completely different…
Just wanted to add that I’m excited to be able to announce that I will be speaking at the FGS conference in August of 2013. Hope to see you there!Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 18, 2012
This week I used an unusual source. A 130-year-old personal bank book. It might not seem to be a likely piece of genealogical material let alone a treasure trove but one should never leave a stone unturned. Sometimes things were saved simply because they were never thrown away. Other times they were saved because they are meaningful. Their preservation provides a clue to their significance.
There were interesting items in the little book like money taken out to buy shingles or socks or suspenders. Those are all interesting things for a family historian. They tell us something about lifestyle and in this case even clothing style. There is income listed from renting farmland and selling chickens and hay. We can see when these things happened and start to imagine a bit more about a specific time and place.
Bank books might be a place for the family historian to find data but they are not were one would normally look for a story being told. Yet this bank book did just that. The first page is blank except for a single entry. The second page was written in a different hand and begins eleven months later with these words-
Commenced living with me this day. He agrees to turn over all his property both personal and real to me and I agree to keep clothe and care for him the same as I have always done for my own family of children under my own roof.
That was written by the son when his father had become too old to care for himself and his farm. Before this was that one single entry made by the father. Only after this do we see the son withdrawing money to buy his father clothes and make repairs to his father’s farm. We can read that he sold his father’s hay to put some money back into the bank. We can read something of the story of a son caring for his father.
Just over a year after his father moved in with him, the son wrote-
$44.50 for funeral expenses.
His father was dead. A receipt tucked in with the book makes it clear when it lists an amount “for father’s coffin.” I know of no other evidence for this man’s death, just a receipt for a coffin and a son’s notes in a bank book.
This bank book for one, is not just dry data. It tells a story.
Maybe stories are just data with souls.
That quote comes from a very different context, and yet it could be about this odd little source, this bank book. It should be “just data” but it was given a “soul.” It tells a story.
By Daniel Hubbard | November 11, 2012
Today we mark the anniversary of the end of The Great War, also known as The War to End All Wars. Before the the 1940s, it was The World War. Today we think about veterans. We think about the men and women, living and dead who served their country.
As genealogists, we should be quicker than most to realize that the definition of “their country” is not so obvious. Nations are host to people from elsewhere. Nations are host to the descendents of people from elsewhere. Not all veterans in our past held the same allegiances as we do.
When my children were slightly younger, they came home early each November with a sheet that was to be filled in with the names of any veterans in the family, past or present. Every year I filled in the names of my ancestors from various colonial wars, the Massachusetts Militia from the 1770′s, the Ohio Militia from 1813 and the Civil War. I also included my ancestor who fought in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the name of the British Empire. I also included their most recent veteran ancestor to fight, my wife’s grandfather, who did his fighting in the German trenches during The Great War. Those last two men probably are not what people have in mind when they hand out that sheet, but they are no less real. They are no less a part of my children’s past. Had my wife’s grandfather not been wounded, had my grandfather been scheduled to ship out to France before the end of November 1918, the two halves of our family might have met seventy some years earlier and under far less favorable circumstances.
This week I visited a grave, purely for historical reasons, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that I had almost visited on Veterans Day. I had been told the name of the cemetery and the shape of the stone and that the man buried there would be Alsatian. That is, a man whose identity might be not quite French and not quite German. Eventually I found him. A man with a name that appeared German but his birthplace, carved right into the stone, was France. He was born in 1792 and he was a veteran, not of an American army but of Napoleon’s army. I wonder if anyone ever marks his grave with the French tricolor.
There are veterans in our pasts. In America their uniforms were often blue and sometimes gray. Yet, those uniforms might also have been red or their helmets might have had a shape that set them apart from doughboys and G.I.s, but they are still ours. Today as genealogists we should think about our ancestral veterans from “here” but also our veterans from “there.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 5, 2012
As I research I often think of things to do, fragments of plans occur to me, possible research strategies start to form and ideas pop into my head. In short I think of things that I can’t do right at the moment. I probably have that in common with roughly 100% of people who do research. It isn’t anything strange.
There is an obvious question. Why don’t I do those things right away? Here are some answers-
- I’m already doing something that I need to finish.
- I figure that it will take more time than I have at that moment.
- It depends on something else that I haven’t done yet.
- I need to wait for something to happen that is out of my control.
- At the moment, I don’t have access to what I would need to pursue the idea.
- It is a good idea only if some other ideas don’t work.
All of those are good answers. Any one of them is a reason not to do something right away. The trick is to record all those good ideas and half formulated plans while keeping focused on the task at hand. Actually, I find that is only half the trick. The other half is to keep those ideas in places where I will find them later when I actually can make use of them.
Generally, there are three things going on when someone does research.
- Getting the raw data.
- Making sense of the data—analyzing, integrating, organizing, etc.
Planning can be something that one does intentionally. Genealogists often prepare a research plan. It may be formalized on paper or it might not. The more complex the problem, the more planning it might require. Nevertheless, “planning” it is often something that simply happens when we least expect it. I can be concentrating on finding a name in a church register and suddenly get two or three ideas for things to do if the name doesn’t show up, something to do if it does show up, and a fallback if what I find means that the hypothesis I’m working on turns out to be wrong. All of those thing are good to have, though perhaps not in the middle of wielding a magnifying glass over an endless string of Gothic script.
Interesting thoughts and ideas can break one’s concentration. Getting it written down is the best way to stop thinking about it while avoiding the opposite of the “Aha moment,” the “Argh moment,” an hour later when you realize that you had an idea but you no longer know what it was. Getting it written down in a place that you will be able to find it when the time comes is the best way to not be distracted by it at random moments.
Where should I keep those idea filled notes to self so that I can pursue them? My current thought is that they answer to “Why don’t I do those things right away?” is the answer to how I should file away those ideas. If I file some ideas away in a category something like “waiting for John Doe’s naturalization,” it just might occur to me that once his naturalization arrives, I might be able to do those things.
Our research notes, files, logs, documents, etc. aren’t the only things family historians need to organize. We need to organize our ideas as well.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 28, 2012
Last week I brought up motivations. Motives can be important and I don’t mean ours, though they might be important too. I mean our ancestors’ motives. It is a question that gets asked about the accused. Did he have a motive? We ask questions about our ancestors motives all the time. Why did they emigrate? Why did they sell the farm? Why did he change religions? Why did she disappear? Why, why, why…
All those questions of motives have the potential to shed light on an ancestor’s life, if answers can be found. Sometimes we use motives for other reasons. Sometimes we might be tempted to use feelings about motives as if they were facts. I like to try to see the world through the eyes of the people that I research but that gives a view to what might have been not what necessarily was. Thoughts about someone’s motives may give a genealogist the insight to look for a record that might not have been of interest otherwise, or lead to places that might not have seemed realistic without those thoughts about long ago motives, but a possible motive for an event two hundred years past is not the same as a fact. Thoughts about motives can also lead one to believe things, both good and bad, about an ancestor’s character that may be very far from the truth. Easy assumptions are often black or white. In reality motives are often mixed, well shaken and thoroughly stirred.
On the other hand, feelings about a motives might lead to a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved. That is where they become useful. Perhaps that hypothesis won’t be either proved or disproved but just hang as a possibility worth recording, carefully couched in protective phrases like “it remains an unanswered question…” or “one hypothesis is that…”
I was recently researching an immigrant. All of the evidence that clearly involved him, placed him in the U.S. by 1883. A man with his name was found leaving Sweden in 1883. That man had the same birthdate, as the one listed on the death certificate of my immigrant. Nevertheless, the case wasn’t closed. My immigrant claimed to have arrived in the U.S. in 1881. It makes one a bit uneasy when something like that doesn’t match. Had he lied? It was a hypothesis. He claimed to have arrived two years before he seemed to have arrived and two years before that man that matched him arrived. Why would he lie? Did he have a motive? If he came to America in 1883, then he had naturalized two years too early. Did he claim 1881 to get citizenship early for some reason? I worked on other parts of the family trying to decide if I had reason enough to spend time trying to disprove a possible lie. Then the answer came. A document was found in family papers that showed that he had arrived in 1881 under a very different name. That hypothesis based on motive had been worth considering. It might have led somewhere but it had been wrong. Possible motives can be useful, but they are not evidence.Twitter It!
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