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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part E

By Daniel Hubbard | April 19, 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 kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for aunt, who got you interested in family history.

B is for book, which explained a family mystery.

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

E is for Evidence

“E” could be for “evidence,” which is obvious I hope, yet if you are just starting out, it might not be. Genealogy is, in part, the thrill of the hunt, and the creature we are hunting is named “evidence.”

“E” could be for “epitaph,” those words written in memory of the dead. They might be just whiffs of flowery language, or they might hid a clue.

“E” could be for “error.” Research can go down the wrong path at times. Spotting the errors is the first step in fixing them but, of course, it is only the first step.

“E” could be for “extract,” text from one place quoted in another. The original ought to be the best evidence, but when the original no longer exists, when the “best” evidence loses that title because what is gone can’t be “best,” then an extract becomes manna from heaven.

“E” could be for “Ellis Island,” perhaps the most “genealogical” place in the United States. The place where so many of our ancestors first set foot in a new land. The place where they had to wonder if the clerks and translators and medical examiners would all see fit to allow them in, or would someone keep them out.

Those are all fine words, but, at Ellis Island, those  people were making a transition that we tend to forget, from emigrant to immigrant. From our vantage point we see them as immigrants, but they were also emigrants. They were not just coming to a new place. They were leaving behind their old lives and experiencing all the uncertainty that entails. When I work with clients in Europe, they are not looking for ancestors who arrived, they are looking for the relatives who left.

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Who Did They Think They Were?

By Daniel Hubbard | April 6, 2015

I’m in the planning stages of a new presentation about questions of identity in genealogy. With that in my mind, I found a copy of LAS News (from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The University of Illinois) waiting for me in my mailbox. I flipped to the first article, Thinking Outside the Boxes, and discovered it was about identity questions in the census and the question of ethnic and racial identity.

In early Federal censuses most people are simply numbers, counts of individuals in gender, age and race categories without names, but from 1850 onward, questions about race and ethnicity appear for people enumerated as individuals, not just as numbers in categories. I’ve mostly been concerned with how we reconstruct the identities of people in our past. There are other issues of identity brought to mind by the census. What identity did a person claim for themselves? What identity did the outside world give them? How could people specify that identity?

One can wonder if, when the census was actually enumerated by an enumerator, was a race simply assigned by the enumerator or was the question actually asked and the answer used? In 1850 a free person could be white, black or mulatto according to the census. In 1870 Chinese (meaning east Asian) and American Indian were added as possible answers. A person could be identified as one of these but not more, and there was no official way of specifying any other ethnic or racial identities. The only way to specify any racial mixture of any kind was mulatto, though in 1890 the terms “quadroon” (75% European and 25% African) and “octoroon” (12.5% African and the rest European) were added. How accurately such identities were recorded is something that one can question. That year Japanese was also added as a race. The motivations for recording such information can be questioned, and the categories themselves, no matter what we think of them, seem odd. Clearly racial terms like white and black, are mixed with ethnic terms like Japanese, and single terms for mixed races like octoroon.

Having this question and a restricted set of possible answers tells us something about the times, and they were times that gave us things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from China from 1882 until 1943. The answers may have been related to what was of interest about people, but I suspect had little to do with how they would choose to identify themselves. Yet, within those constraints, people might still have some choice, and as we research we might find the need to be aware of how people might self-identify. Given discrimination, should we be surprised that someone who identified as white in one census, was identified as something else in an earlier census? No we shouldn’t. A child identified as something other than white, might realize later that if they could “pass” they could go farther in life than they could otherwise.

Ethnicity can drift as well. While it often is not explicitly stated, questions about place of birth, parents’ places of birth, language spoken and even surname all carry information about ethnicity and, if someone chose to change their ethnic identity, those answers would need to change. I’ve researched one person who gradually changed all those things over a period of decades, apparently experimenting a bit along the way. As we research, we might find it necessary to consider how a person might chose to identify, how they might be forced to identify, why those identities might be different, and why they might change. We might need to think about what attitudes and cultural and legal forces were present. Then we need to think about how that might affect our research.

Some people want to assert their unique background. Some people want to fit in. Often those are actually the same people in different circumstances or seeing those circumstances from different angles.  Since the disappearance of terms like mulatto from the census, it has been nearly impossible to claim more than one race/ethnicity. Even writing in multiple choices in the space for “other” has resulted in only the first term entered being used.

In 1935 a judge ruled that Mexicans could not become citizens of the United States because they were not white. As one might imagine, many people, who would not have done so otherwise, chose to publicly identify themselves as white after that. There is a long history of trying to fit people into boxes, and preferably only one box at a time per person to keep it simple. That has a difficult time reflecting reality under any circumstances, but when the boxes change or circumstances and situations encourage movement between boxes, don’t be too surprised if your ancestors pop out of an unexpected box.

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Mad Men

By Daniel Hubbard | March 29, 2015

Even if your ancestors never worked on Madison Avenue, some of them may have written an advertisement or two, and put a touch of their personality into their writing.

In 1774 a pair of men took out ads in the Pennsylvania Packet. They didn’t know each other. It was just coincidence that their ads were printed one after the other on page one.

Ad Number 1

The longer ad was the one I was interested in. It was long—unnecessarily long, though it started well. Three thousand acres near Winchester, Virginia, were for sale. There was a description about the different types of land on those acres and what good uses for them might be. There was a sawmill, fed by an “unfailing stream.” There was a site suitable for a gristmill. There was a ten-year rental deal for half the land and the mill that earned the owner £50 of Virginia money every year. It was a long ad but at least there was a point to those opening lines. The description even answered some questions for me in the research for a book. That, though, was only half the ad. The rest consisted of a tirade, the gist of which was, that prospective buyers should not listen to the lies of good-for-nothing neighbors, who thought nothing of casting false disparagement upon his land. He related how he had once been a victim of such neighbors before. He discussed how mean spirited people hide behind pretended neighborliness and false religiosity, only to lie for the sport of it, and how he did not intend to be a victim of such behavior again. Finally, he advised prospective buyers to come see him directly at his home in Winchester “at the sign of William Pitt.”

The second half of that advertisement was certainly an odd way to attract buyers, and an odd use for all that advertising space. It does, however, give some insights into the man’s personality. Even the sign was interesting. William Pitt was immensely popular in the American colonies in the 1760s. Popular enough to get Pittsburgh, and many other places in America, named for him. He was Earl of Chatham, and, as Prime Minister, was responsible for the strategy that drove France from North America at the end of the French and Indian War.

Ad Number 2

In contrast, the other ad was rather short and much more to the point. Certain unspecified lands along the Ohio River were to be divided into lots and sold to interested parties. There was little information. Not even the total amount of land was specified. If you were to judge by the size of the ad, it would seem to be the least important of the two. The name of the man who wrote the ad caught my eye, though. It was George Washington. Not George Washington Smith, George Washington Davis, or some such name, which was my initial reaction. It was the George Washington, but it was a few years before Americans would be named for him by the hundreds, a few years before his image would start to replace William Pitt on signs across America. In 1774 he was not yet President George Washington, or General George Washington. He was still a few months away from being George Washington, Delegate to the First Continental Congress. As far as I’ve been able to tell, his small, nondescript advertisement announced the availability for purchase of land totaling about 60,000 acres. My two “Mad Men” were clearly very different.


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Strix Noctua

By Daniel Hubbard | March 21, 2015

night owl by audubon

Strix Noctua, The Little Night Owl by Audubon

A few years ago I proposed that the pushmi-pullyu should be the official mascot of genealogy. There is something that happens to me over and over again, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. In its honor, I’ve delayed this post until night has fallen. It has also made me realize that genealogy also needs an official bird, and I think I know what it should be.

There is something about the approach of bedtime that brings discovery. The more I tell myself that it is time to shutdown for the night, the more likely I am to discover something really exciting, something that means I can’t go to bed just yet. I have to make notes. I have to see how this changes things. New ideas start raining down, they need to be checked before they are forgotten. Is it just a coincidence? Is it just the way that many of us are? I found some quotes that seem to summarize some of the reasons for this strange phenomenon.

How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon.
—Dr. Seuss

Maybe the ever-wise Dr. Seuss had part of the solution. Research is absorbing. It is so tempting to just keep going, not realizing how late it has become. Maybe that big late-night discovery is like that old joke- “Where did you find it?” “The last place I looked.” Yep, if you keep going until you find something big, it just might get late.

Research is the name given the crystal formed when the night’s worry is added to the day’s sweat.
—Martin H. Fischer

I’m not sure about the worry part of this quote, I’d substitute the word “creativity,” but maybe the reason that the discoveries seem so often to come late, is that they come after a whole day’s diligent preparation. Nothing surprising about that. Late night discoveries aren’t isolated, effortless epiphanies. They come after hours of careful preparation and study.

Night time is really the best time to work. All the ideas are there to be yours because everyone else is asleep.
—Catherine O’Hara

Ah yes, the later it becomes, the fewer the distractions. No more odd jobs to do. No more plumbers to call. The kids are in bed. The ideas are all ours.

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The night can be the poets muse. Sometimes research is all logic and data. The night seems to bring out different patterns of thought, more, or at least differently, poetic than the day. In the end, one still needs the straight logical lines and the data they connect, but sometimes a little nighttime wondering, curving off in different directions, can lead to those logical connections. At night we think just a bit differently.

It is one of life’s bitterest truths that bedtime so often arrives just when things are really getting interesting.
—Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket encapsulated much of what I remember about bedtime from when I was a kid. Perhaps those old habits die hard. It may be only my personal preference, but I don’t think I would be alone in thinking that the night owl ought to be the official bird of genealogy.

When the world is itself draped in the mantle of night, the mirror of the mind is like the sky in which thoughts twinkle like stars.
―Khushwant Singh

So, fellow genealogical night owls (strix noctua genealogicus?), may those thoughts twinkle like stars.

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One Document to Rule Them All

By Daniel Hubbard | March 15, 2015

The title of this post you might recognize as being stolen from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring but the subject matter is actually stolen from biology.

Scientifically describing a new species is an exacting endeavor. Ideally, one has an entire specimen of the new organism that can be used for study and comparison to other, similar organisms. That specimen is referred to as a “type specimen,” specifically as the holotype-

the single specimen designated by an author as the type of a species or lesser taxon at the time of establishing the group (Merriam-Webster)

That definition might be a mouthful but the idea is pretty clear. The discoverer of a new species puts forth a specimen that others can use for study and comparison to other organisms. Going back to Tolkien, it is one specimen to rule them all.

More and more I find myself applying a similar concept to genealogical research. As one researches, one finds new individuals who are the parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, in-laws, friends, and associates of the people you had been researching. Some will be interesting to you and may help you solve a genealogical problem. That all looks great until you try to follow those people. Sometimes the records will be sparse and the names common. It can be tempting to conclude that the few hints you have involving the correct name are all the correct person. Sometimes there might be plenty of records but the people lived in a city and finding them might feel like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It can feel overwhelming with many records that might relate to the person you want. It is easy to feel as if your research is simply drifting aimlessly.

For awhile now, I’ve been picking my own “holotypes,” not “type specimens” like a biologist might for species, but  “type documents” for individuals. The document becomes that “one document to rule them all.” It can be whatever document I have that connects the new individual to my research problem, or it might be a document that gives information about a person I only suspect of being related to my problem. In either case, from then on, I think of it as defining that individual. For example, If I am researching John Doe, he is not just anyone with that name. He is the John Doe listed as a witness in a specific marriage document, or who lived at a specific address and had a specific occupation in a city directory.  From then on I ask the question “Is the document I am now looking at clearly giving me information about the same individual as the individual in that holotype document?” Is there a link, perhaps via other documents, to my one holotype document? If I can’t make the link, I can’t say that the individual in that new document is definitely a new person, but it does mean that I can’t simply accept that it is the same person and use that information.

This way of looking at things means that you always have a definition of that individual to go back to when in doubt. Other documents will add information but only if they are clearly linkable to that one original document that defines the individual. Either a new document you are looking at can be linked to that definition, or it can’t. If it can’t, set it aside. It might be about the right person, but it doesn’t meet the standard without further documentation that can provide that link. Tossing in a document that doesn’t pass muster, just because “it looks pretty good,” runs the risk of allowing the research you’re performing to lump several people together into one individual.

Sometimes it might be that the individual that emerges from linking documents to that one starting-point document turns out not to be the person that I was hoping, but I still have a clear reconstruction of an individual, not a fuzzy situation that I need to keep wondering and worrying about. Having that one holotype document to refer to keeps the research anchored—the one document to rule them all.

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Information and Connection

By Daniel Hubbard | March 8, 2015

A few weeks ago my daughter’s biology teacher asked if I could give my presentation on DNA for her honors classes. It required putting a bit of a different spin in things and it got me thinking. The talk is meant to give genealogists a basic understanding of DNA so that they have the background information needed to learn more. With the students, it was almost the reverse. They had been studying DNA for weeks but probably knew nothing about genealogy.

With fellow genealogist, I point out that when we use documents, we need to go out and find them, then ask ourselves if the document is relevant, or if maybe it is only about a person who is somehow similar to the person we want. Once we’re reasonably sure that we have a relevant document, we can extract names, dates, and places from it. The students needed to understand that just because a genealogist has found documents, doesn’t mean they know how the documents fit together. Documents are often rich in personal information but poor when it comes to connections. (Not so surprisingly, I got questions about what kinds of documents genealogists use.)

DNA  complements those documents. At least when first starting out with DNA testing, we don’t need to go looking for DNA, it is something that we already have. We don’t need to ask if it is relevant, it is ours. What about information? DNA can’t tell us an ancestor’s name. It doesn’t come with a date. DNA doesn’t have a village name encoded into it. DNA doesn’t carry any of that information. Documents can be information rich but connection poor. DNA is all about the connections.

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The Forgotten Plague

By Daniel Hubbard | March 1, 2015

By the dawn of the nineteenth century, the disease had killed one in seven of all people that had ever lived.

That is a statement that will catch one’s attention. I heard it at the opening of a recent edition of American Experience. The disease in question is tuberculosis, or, as we often read in genealogical records, phthisis, a Greek word translated into English as consumption—so called because the victim seemed to be consumed from within. I’ve seen it as the cause in many a death record. In fact, at its worst in the nineteenth century, it seems to have been the cause of death for 1 in 4 Europeans.

I grew up in a household where medical discussions were common. My mother was a nurse and every Sunday we traveled a few blocks to have dinner with her parents, and Grandma was a retired doctor. So when I called my folks the other day and my mom answered it was natural to mention watching a show about TB and asked if she’d seen it. Yes, she’d watched but my dad had refused. As far as I know, my dad has only refused to watch a documentary once before. He’d refused to watch Ken Burn’s The War, saying that he had lived through those years and didn’t feel like reliving them, so I immediately understood why he had refused to watch this documentary.

When my dad was a baby, his grandmother had moved in with the family when she and her second husband had become too ill to care for each other. I’ve heard stories about cloths over mouths and how his mother had boiled the dishes every night to try to prevent the infection from spreading. One of my aunts took her grandmother for nightly walks to get some fresh air when she was unlikely to encounter healthy people. She died of TB at home when my dad was two.

Years later, my father developed tuberculosis and began a long stay in a sanatorium. The regime at a TB sanatorium was constant bed rest, fresh air no matter the weather and enough food to prevent the wasting away that gave consumption its name. My father has told me several times about how while he was at the sanatorium, they received their first supply of streptomycin, the miracle cure that meant that people with tuberculosis could be cured. He also told me how his initial excitement over the prospect of getting well and leaving the sanatorium changed when it became clear that streptomycin made him so horribly sick that tuberculosis was preferable. Instead of being one of the first to be cured of TB with antibiotics, he was one of the last to recover from tuberculosis the nineteenth century way, month after month of forced rest and fresh air in a sanatorium. So that is a bit of my personal past, brought to mind by my father’s refusal to watch a documentary.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part D

By Daniel Hubbard | February 25, 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 kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for aunt, who got you interested in family history.

B is for book, which explained a family mystery.

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

D is for Documentation

“D” could be for “documentation,” which is obvious I hope, yet if you are just starting out, it might not be. Genealogy isn’t based on “I got an email that told me that…” or “I found a tree that shows that John Doe was his father.” Genealogy is based on documents and what wonderful things they can be.

“D” could be for “deed,” that specific type of document that records ownership. If an older man deeds land to a younger man with the same surname for $1 or some other tiny sum, he may not be saying “This is my son” but he is coming very, very close to that statement.

“D” could be for “date.” Genealogists need to do more than collect names and dates but we can’t do without them either. Dates allow us to place in time the events in our ancestors lives. Almost mysteriously, as we go back in time, our ability to easily understand what those dates really mean decreases. The longer ago something occurred, the harder it can be to understand the date a document bears.

“D” could be for “DNA,” the stuff of our genes and the genetic markers, which label our cells as descendants of the cells of our forebears. Only documents come with names, dates, and places but only DNA comes unambiguously from our personal past.

“D” could be for “digitization,” probably a bigger revolution in genealogy than even DNA testing. The ability to access documents, without physically traveling to view them, or having copies made and physically sent, has changed research almost immeasurably. Documents are preserved and available in a way that they never have been before.

“D” could be for “diaspora,” those great dispersions of people that, from time to time, alter our world and shape our family trees.

Those are all fine words, but, if we look deep below the lives we reconstruct, below the documents and DNA, down to the atoms with which we build, we find “data” and we find that “d” must  be for  “data.”

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Rootstech & FGS

By Daniel Hubbard | February 16, 2015

I’m just back from working three days in the ArchivDigital booth at the combined Rootstech / FGS conference in Salt Lake City. Billed as likely to be the biggest genealogy conference ever held, the attendance didn’t disappoint. Already on the first day, one could hear rumors about the attendance in hotel elevators. At first people were in disbelief that there were 15,000 people. Then the rumored number rose to 20,000. The highest number I heard while moving between floors was 25,000. We all wondered if that could really be true. Part way through, I did hear an official figure that was just a hair below 22,000 and that walk-in registrations would be increasing the number.*

A tiny fraction of the exhibit hall taken just before the doors opened on Friday.

A tiny fraction of the exhibit hall taken just before the doors opened on Friday.

At the booth, it was a fun three days of answering people’s Swedish genealogy questions. They ranged from “Which one is Switzerland and which is Sweden?” to “How do I get started?” to “I’ve traced my ancestor to this point, what should I do next?” With a crowd as big as this one, there were plenty of people who wanted to know more, and with nearly 200 vendors, there was something for everyone.

On the flight back to Chicago, I sat next to a man who spent a good deal of the flight editing a single photo on his phone. Every so often when he made some change that I could see out of the corner of my eye, the reflex to see what had happened tore me from my book. The photo was nothing that that he had taken with his phone. It must have been scanned from a photo taken perhaps in the 1980s. I noticed at one point that it was a part of a much larger picture. The screen was zoomed in on a single face. It was zoomed so much that it was grainy and the slight imperfection in the original focus was obvious. One sign of the photo’s age was that it was quite yellow and I think he was trying to correct the color. He worked and worked at it and there is only so much you can do editing pictures on a phone. Clearly, there was something deeper going on. There was a story behind that photo. There was only so much that could be done with that photo and he must have done everything many times over. It wasn’t the photo that he was working on so much as the story. A story that he knew and that I could only guess. A family story was there in that photo and that is part of what genealogy is all about. He reminded me of that, even though I was the one returning from the biggest family history conference of all time.

*When rumors about the attendance started to spread in the elevators and hallways, I wondered who would be the first to quip something along the lines of “Man, the Utah State Thruway is closed,” but perhaps that Woodstock reference occurred only to me.

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How Odd

By Daniel Hubbard | February 8, 2015

Sometimes it can be good to look at lots of data even when you only want to understand just a little. If you look only at the 55-year-old widower and his 20-year-old son in the 1841 census of the UK, you wouldn’t think twice about the ages. Look beyond the family that interests you and you would notice that the ages reported for adults usually end in a “5” or a “0.”  That should seem strange, but it was what the enumerators were told to do. If you didn’t know that, it would have paid to notice the pattern in the census itself. I’ve notice that pattern to reported ages in other places as well. Years ago, I created a decent sized spreadsheet to show that the age that would seem to suggest that a man was not my ancestor, was actually consistent with him being the right man, given the way that other ages were reported. People seem to like to round to the nearest multiple of 5. At some times and in some places that tendency to simply be in the right ballpark seems strong. Only by looking at a lot of data can one tell.

The other day I was looking at immigration years in the U.S. Federal census. That information is known to be less than reliable, but this seemed strange. The years seemed to be almost all even. Some years ended in “5,” a few ended in “1”, “3”, “7”, or “9” but many more were even. That tells you something about the accuracy of the information. Numbers of immigrants that should have smoothly changed from year to year, sometimes increasing over the years, sometimes decreasing, instead went up and down every other year. They showed a tendency to be even, and that is, in fact, odd. Why would that be? People don’t report what is true, they report what they remember. We hope that those two things are the same, but we need to acknowledge that they often differ. When someone is asked about the year, several decades earlier, when their spouse immigrated, can we blame them if some bias toward easy to remember numbers creeps in?

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