By Daniel Hubbard | October 20, 2013
(latch clicks, door opens)
“Trick or Treat!”
“Oh, aren’t you cute! A broken microfilm reader! And what are the rest of you?”
“I’m really inaccurate search results!”
“Oh, yes I see! And look, you’re a gedcom file that includes King Arthur and Hercules. Wow, now that is scary!”
“Who else do we have here? You look like Frankenstein’s Monster.”
“I’m an ancestor assembled from spare parts!”
“Oh No! Terrible. So what would you like? I have some lovely microfilms.”
“Oh we love those!”
“Just don’t scroll through them all at once, they’ll give you blurry vision.”
“The volunteers here are always so nice!”
“Wow, I got two “fun sized” New York state census reels for Oswego County. What did you get?”
“I got a reel of Cleveland marriage licenses!”
“Mine says ‘Baptisms: St. Underpants upon Washbasin Parish, Ripplethwaite’ … I’ll never understand British research.”
“No, me neither.”
“You don’t suppose there are real underpants in there?”
“Hope not… Hey is that Billy across the street? It looks like him and it would be just like him to dress up that gross.”
“Hey, Billy, that you? What are you?”
“Yep, it’s me. I’m undead! I was born in 1674 but I’m marked “Living” online.”
“Yes, so I’m doomed to wander the earth on Halloween night in search of my probate packet.”
“I think I know where we could find it.”
“There!” (points, ominous background music is heard, the children are suddenly subdued.)
“But mom told me never to go there.”
“We can’t go there. I hear researchers go in never to be seen again.”
“But if Billy needs his probate packet, you know we have to look there now. By tomorrow it will vanish again for another year.”
(Moments later on the front steps)
“I don’t know. I can already smell smoke. I think we’re too late.”
“Nonsense. That’s probably just the smell of the clerks’ candles coming through the window.”
“I dunno. It looks like no one has been in there for 200 years and I don’t think we should go in either.”
Suddenly, lightning flashes, the roof bursts into flames and spectral clerks pour from the windows and doors shrieking and flinging shadowy buckets of water all about. The children freeze in terror as one last archivist-wraith flies straight through the main door screeching and lamenting. He turns toward the little genealogists and bellows the dire warning-
“No one gets probate packets from The Burnt Courthouse.” Then vanishes into the night with a blood-curdling laugh.
The children scream and run as fast as they can back to Billy’s house, barely slowing down to scoop up the poll lists and session laws that flutter from their bags as they run.
Finally, safe at Billy’s, his mother consoles them with extra helpings of hot cider and pension records but poor Billy will have to wait another year for his chance to remove the “Private- Living” label from his costume.
THE ENDTwitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2013
Sometimes we like to think that genealogy tells us “who we are.” I think it might change who we are. I think it can connect us to history. I think it can help us understand the members of our families by revealing something of their formative experiences but I don’t think it tells us who we are in any deterministic sense. I am me regardless of what I just discovered about a sixth great-grandfather. Learning about his experience might change me, might make me think, but it doesn’t actually tell me who I am. Sometimes in fact our family history might tell us who we aren’t, despite the bond of blood.
Case in Point
An incredible example of this has appeared in the news over the last few weeks. A woman in Germany stumbled upon a book. A picture of a woman in the book looked familiar to her so she kept reading. After skimming through it, she read a summary of the life of the woman in the picture and that summary fit what she knew of her biological mother and her maternal grandmother who had committed suicide decades earlier. It was her own family history in that book.
She had grown up not really knowing her biological mother who had put her in a children’s home after becoming pregnant during a brief affair. Now she had found something of her past but this wasn’t the kind of discovery that tells you who you are. It was the kind that tells you who you are not.
The book she discovered was a memoir written by her biological mother. She learned that Ruth, her maternal grandmother, had worked for Oskar Schindler in Krakow in the mid 1940s, which is how she met Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp. She became his mistress and bore him a daughter ten months before he was executed for ordering torture and extermination and for personally torturing and killing a large but unknown number of people. In fact, he was so sadistic that he had been relieved of his command by the SS for his mistreatment of prisoners and eventually ruled mentally ill by SS doctors and committed to a mental institution. This was the maternal grandfather that she had never been told about. All she knew of Amon Goeth came from seeing him portrayed in Schindler’s List long before she knew that he was her grandfather.
That would be unnerving enough but there is one last twist. The woman in question, Jennifer Teege, is biracial. Her father was a Nigerian student. Given the chance, Amon Goeth would have personally shot her.
Our family history doesn’t always tell us about who we are. It can tell us, emphatically, who we are not. But it does always tells us something.
A few links to the story-
By Daniel Hubbard | October 6, 2013
What we present to others, especially non genealogists, are usually the condensed results of research. They would probably not want all the gory details so instead we give them the dry bones, which aren’t necessarily any more palatable. What is it that we should convey? What is it that holds interest?
The Medium is the Message
When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” he was thinking of the interplay between the medium that conveys the message and the message itself. We may convey our message with a quick comment made to a person whose eyes may light up or glaze over. We might convey it with a pedigree chart, a book or anything in between. The medium and the message interact. Some media are good for conveying a few facts, others for conveying a great deal of information and context. Other media may convey a great deal of the richness of the story without spelling out where that information actually originated. Genealogy on television clearly tips toward showing the results of the research without much of the details. How could it do otherwise? A feed of source citations scrolling across the bottom of the screen would interest me at times but would hardly be a plus for the audience in general and would probably annoy nearly everyone at least some of the time. Change the medium to a research report and and it has to have those citations.
Research vs Results
One thing that I ponder often is what a genealogical story actually is. Is it the narrative that could be written based on our research? If we change the medium to a novel, some of the subjects of our research could easily be characters in a book (if anyone would believe them). In the extreme, the novelized ancestor would be stripped of all reference to the sources of the data and all the inferences drawn and all those modifiers that one needs to use in research when things aren’t perfectly clear. The presentation can be a work of art but it doesn’t tell the reader what the evidence was or how the reconstruction was made.
On the other hand, a genealogical story could also be the mystery story of the research itself. In that case the story isn’t a narrative that reflects the lives of the people being researched but rather the process behind discovering them. That sounds dry, but we all know that it isn’t. The thrill of genealogy is the thrill of the chase and it is full of both eureka moments and the intriguing trail of clues that people left behind a century or two ago that we can carefully discover. An ancestor may not have done anything particularly dramatic, yet the process of discovering them might have been truly fascinating. It might be the tale of how nineteen different documents, most of them obscure and hard to locate, were identified, contemplated and pieced together in the one way that makes sense no matter how improbable the result might seem.
So what is the story? I think genealogical stories almost have to be a blending of the two. There are two messages, yin and yang—the tale of the long ago lives and the mystery of their discovery. A genealogical story lives in a quantum world where it can be both Wuthering Heights and and an extensively footnoted tale of Sherlock Holmes. That is the story we should try to tell and the reason it is so difficult.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 29, 2013
I was tempted to title this post something like “Feeling Geeky” but that didn’t seem to be specific enough. There are so many things in genealogy that one could write about when feeling geeky. This is just one of them but it is one of the most important.
Statements and Support
Every statement made in genealogy should have something to back it up. It might be a document, a book, a grave marker or any number of other possibilities. If we have a statement on the one hand and a piece of information on the other, we also need to make the connection between just that statement and just that piece of information. That connection between the two is what we make when we add a source citation.
We often think about sources as having certain properties. Those properties can actually be properties of the extracted pieces of information or of the connection between our statement and that extracted information. Here are the three properties that one normally considers.
A source is usually a physical object that can be classified as a whole. The property used to classify the source is its “form.” The form can be:
- Original- It might be an actual sheet of paper, two centuries old. It might be a photograph or digital scan of the same sheet of paper. Just about anything else done to the source makes it-
- Derivative- Perhaps the original source was copied by hand, translated or abstracted. To that, some people add-
- Authored- An authored work takes information from multiple sources and produces new statements. These are sometimes simply considered as being derivative.
Every piece of information that you can extract from a source was once the knowledge of a person. An important property of that information is the separation between that person and the information that they reported. That knowledge can be:
- Primary- the information was the informant’s firsthand knowledge. The informant knew the information from their own senses. Otherwise the knowledge is-
- Secondary- literally this means that someone who saw or heard the event told the informant whatever it was that the informant later had recorded. In practice, one often considers any knowledge that is not primary as secondary simply because there is often no way of knowing how many steps there were between the observer and the informant.
The classic example of the difference between the form of the source and the knowledge of the information comes from death certificates. The source may be original and the informant may have been present at the death, making that information primary, but the certificate probably also has a birth date reported by the informant. If the informant was an adult son or daughter, that knowledge must be secondary.
There is a property that is specific to the connection between your statement and the information from the source. Once you link a piece of information to a statement that you are making, that information becomes evidence. That might sound odd but evidence is meaningless on its own. It has to be evidence for something to be evidence. Otherwise it is just information. How the evidence supports your statement is an important property. That support can be:
- Direct- One piece of information makes it clear why you believe your statement to be true. It supplies you with all you need to make your statement. If the evidence is relevant but insufficient then it is-
- Indirect- One piece of evidence only allows you to make your statement when combined with other evidence. One last type of evidence is-
- Negative- there is no information to extract from a source that ought to have that information if a hypothesis were true. You might have been told that a person lived the first forty years of his life in the town of South Somewhere. After searching relevant records that ought to record such a man—for example birth, marriage death, land, probate, census and tax—you find nothing that even contains a similar surname let alone the man in question. Your negative result is negative evidence for the South Somewhere hypothesis.
A piece of evidence carries all three of those properties with it. A source that has a form contains bits of information that derive from a type of knowledge and any bits of information that can be related to a statement become evidence that give a type of support to that statement.
That concludes the big three properties but there is something that I think might need to be added to that list because there is another property of information that I find to be useful in research.
One of the most important things about a piece of information is what is indicated about its origins. I’m tempted to say that the type of indication is a fourth property that should be tracked. That indication can be:
- Cites- The information comes with one or more citations that point to other sources. An authored or derivative source ought to tell the reader where the author found the information or what exactly had been abstracted. Unfortunately, many times there is no citation. In that case the next best thing is if it-
- States- There isn’t a full citation but there is enough of a statement made to point the reader in the right direction. An author might make a statement like “While searching in the South Somewhere courthouse I found the following among the probate records.” A clerk recording a meeting might make a statement about the following business having been brought forward from the previous year. A paper found as part of a pension application might contain a statement about a marriage record from Some Other County having been presented to show that the widow had married the soldier on a specific day. Other times things aren’t so clear. In that case the next best thing is if it-
- Implies- There is no statement about where the information originated but it is of a type that points in a certain direction. This often happens with older authored sources. A family might be listed in which all the daughters’ husbands are given without first names. That implies that the ultimate source for that information is probably a will or other probate document that lists the daughters by married name. The fourth possible value for this property is-
- Silent- You have clearly not reached the ultimate source of the information but there is no useful indication about what next step back in the chain might be. It might be that no indication was recorded. One all too often runs into useless indications, such as “A variety of records were used to create this invaluable resource.” I mentally add, “and the variety was so fabulously great that, as valuable as we claim this to be, we can’t be bothered to tell you what those records were.” Those might as well be silent. There is one last possible value for this property-
- Not applicable- you’ve got primary information from an original source. There may be more to find in different records, but you have followed this one set of indications to the end of the road.
There is an interesting bit of self reference in this property. If you make a statement, you have created something that someone else could use as a piece of information. Your statement becomes their information. Your citations, your link to the information that you used, becomes their indication for the next step back toward the ultimate source.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 23, 2013
“Hmm…I wonder if this the right family. It could be. Better check these new names and see if they clarify things…I’ll start with Reginald, that’s an unusual name.”
“Oh, what’s this? Ronald…Could that be Reginald? Better check that!”
“Wait, which window did I have that first document in? Ok, found it.”
“Here is a Donald that could be Ronald…Huh, this is strange but interesting. How does this fit? Oh, wait, it doesn’t. I’m looking for a Reginald that might be noted as Ronald but probably not as Donald. Now what window had the first document?”
“Oops, clicked the close button! I still need that! Well, it should be in my browser history…Hmm, what’s this item. I don’t remember looking at that. Better open it again and take a look. Oh yes, that! Now I remember that. Oooh! that is a familiar surname that I missed before. Now who were they?”
(Digs through database. Clicks through people with the same surname.)
“Hmm…might be the same family but nobody actually matches. Now what window had that first document?”
“Oh yes, I closed it. Where was the browser history. It was in one of these tabs. Here it is and there is the link for that document.”
“Ok, back in business. I better look at a few things to try to understand this.”
(Five new browser windows open in rapid succession)
“These don’t seem to be the same person. Time to try Google.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of hits!”
“Oh my gosh! Is that great-aunt Gladys that this site is talking about? Oh my, look at that image. I’ve never seen that clipping. Did she really do that!?”
“Wow, I didn’t know that great-aunt Gladys ever acted that way! Hard to believe that was really her. Better email the cousins!”
“Now, what was it that I was doing…? Oh yes, Donald…”
If that little dialog seems far too familiar, you may be suffering from geneADHDlogy.
Treatment is available.
Sometimes one of the most difficult parts of doing research is staying focused. There are many things that can help. Writing down a goal and documenting the steps you take as you take them can help keep things on track.
When I led meetings often in my telecom days, I learned a technique that probably has many names. I learned the name “parking lot.” It was a place to note down all the things that were said or asked that were perhaps interesting but were certainly off-topic. It was a way to ease that part of a participant’s brain that was stuck on a thought and didn’t want to let it go because then it might be forgotten. Sometimes a researcher is wise to put a thought or a document in their own private parking lot so that they can keep focus on the goal without being distracted by the possibility of forgetting about or losing that juicy story about great-aunt Gladys. Getting that straight can be the goal for another day.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 15, 2013
Genealogists deal with people’s identities all the time. We don’t normally deal with the physical reality of those people. We don’t deal with the he-is-right-there-in-front-of-me type of identity. We deal with little bits of information here and there. If we have it right, some data overlaps between sources and other data that isn’t found anywhere else extends our knowledge of that identity. In a sense that is the heart of the meaning of identity. It is the quality of being identical. That is, the person represented by this document is identical to the person found in that other document. Here there is the concept of a person as they exist on paper, being assembled from different documents. It is the concept of reuniting what had been scattered.
We also have the word “individual.” Individuals certainly have identities but the concepts run in opposing directions. An individual is literally something that cannot be divided, a unity that cannot be broken apart. For obvious reasons we associate the word “individual” with the physical reality of a person. That physical reality comes into existence and eventually goes out of existence. The nature of a person’s identity is certainly altered once the individual no longer exists but as any genealogist knows, identities remain in one form or another.
A few things lately have me thinking about identity. A document I obtained for a client is quite explicitly about identity. A local official stated that the man standing before him was someone he knew well and that he was the same person as the man listed in a group of papers that were being submitted. That official identified that man. He stated that all the documents could be properly assembled into his identity. It is a document from a small place and long ago time.
Recently there was a theft of computers from a large healthcare company. According to the company, the computers contained the identities of about 4 million patients from a span of roughly 30 years. Here again we have the literal meaning of identity. Multiple facts about individuals were assembled and held together. The person named X is identical to the person with telephone number Y who is also identical to the person with social security number Z. Group enough facts like that together and they form an identity, a thing that can be stolen. An identity is also a thing that can be protected. Unfortunately in this case, the computers did not have encryption turned on and several million people’s identities are now in limbo.
Another news story that caught my eye was a guilty plea in a fraud case in which the social security numbers of then recently deceased individuals were used to obtain tax refunds about 5 years ago. Whenever I read something like this, it boggles my mind. Any competent genealogist understands that a properly assembled identity includes the fact of death once an individual has passed away. Once a person dies, their identity should contain that detail, there is no longer an individual who matches the identity. The identity still exists but it is changed finally and forever. The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (commonly used by genealogists in the form of the Social Security Death Index) exists to make that determination of death an easy matter, that final alteration and inactivation of the identity. Once that fact is added to the identity, once the person represented is shown to be identical to the person who has died, all the acts in which a living person with that identity can engage should simply cease. It is an identity that can no longer be used or abused. Anyone can make that determination. Anyone who deals with identities should check to see if that endpoint has been reached. Why don’t they? Why do they not perform that last vital step when dealing with an identity and see if it still has a corresponding individual?Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 8, 2013
The story of one part of the life of an ancestor of mine comes from his son’s obituary. It is the brief but interesting story of a long pioneering journey. It is also clearly wrong. Not so wrong as to be worthless, there are plenty of good clues but there is, for example, an obvious problem with travel during the winter. I would express it mathematically as boat + river + Wisconsin + February = impossible.
Given the description of the difficulty of the journey and the time that it was begun, I have serious problems understanding the motivation behind it. Clearly it was made but just as clearly there must have been something else going on beyond what was written.
Another problem that came up in the obituary was connected to one of the forms of transportation, “drum” boats. It gave some details about the boats but not enough for a police artist to sketch the suspect. As far as I can tell there was no such thing as a drum boat, at least nothing that matches in both name and description. There was such a thing as a Durham boat. It fits the description but is hardly what one would imagine and that presented new problems. They were simple boats but they were 40 or more feet long and required a crew to steer and pole them. Not something that a man who could never have seen such a boat could casually whip up upon reaching a navigable stream in the middle of nowhere. If he could, would he build it for the transport of his wife and three young children? Then I read an account of traveling down the Fox by Durham boat that involved shooting a seven foot drop in a cheaply built 40 foot long boat. Do that alone? I think not. Not even with a baby on board sign hanging off the back.
The man who introduced those boats to the river was named John Arndt. When I read that, it all began to fall into place. I already knew from evidence dating from just months later that my ancestor knew Arndt. Other evidence soon showed that Arndt had some connections to places along the way that my ancestors traveled and that they could have met significantly earlier. The odd timing and the use of a difficult route suddenly had a possible explanation. My ancestor worked for Arndt after their journey and if at just one crucial place along the way there had been employment, then it all just might make sense. Arndt had a connection with that place too.
When I was a kid just starting out doing research, I got a will that proved that a long-ago ancestor had been a small-time slave owner. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that and I was less thrilled to see in his estate inventory that he possessed “handirons.” I interpreted that to mean shackles. That was also not particularly nice to discover. For some reason I didn’t jump to conclusions and I researched his things and realized that I had, in fact, discovered the shocking truth that my ancestor had owned “andirons,” sinister devices used not for manacling slaves but rather for keeping your home nice and toasty by improving the air circulation around the fire in one’s chimney. Bit of a difference there and a lesson learned. The identities of all those things we learn of but don’t immediately understand can’t really be ignored. Doohickeys can make a difference.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 1, 2013
Ever wish you could just glance at a record and get an overview of what it means? Or for that matter, what about looking at several documents and see how they might fit together? Or clash? Or see that there is a real puzzle to solve?
The more data one accumulates the harder it can be to see the subtle patterns. On the other hand having lots of data is often the only way to have a chance to see a pattern. In cases when different evidence carries different weight there is the additional problem that what looks like a pattern if everything is taken at face value often disappears when the weakness of some evidence is considered. Other times what looks like lots of information all goes back to the same starting point
In some cases the pattern is a sort of Swiss cheese. Only by reconstructing families in order to eliminate them, can the holes of the cheese be created and the pattern appear.
Sometimes patterns are easy to spot. A birth register might contain births every two years or so with parents of the same names. Perhaps there are a few births that list only the father. With the pattern of births you can be fairly sure of the name of the mother. If you find no other records with the name of the father and a different mother, you can be more sure that you are dealing with a single family. Even if you do find another couple and there is a child born to a man with the right name and a mystery mother that is sandwiched between other, less mysterious births, the pattern may allow you to eliminate some possibilities.
Some patterns are much more subtle. Probate records often leave some relationships unspecified, others specified in ways that initially makes no sense or have multiple interpretations. Other relationships might be specified but insufficient. Terms like nephew and granddaughter only go so far without more information. You can’t instantly enter them into your database or on a family group sheet.
A probate record I’ve been looking at lists what seems to be a group of siblings without saying that is what they are, without giving a surname and without any idea of why they were being listed. All that is clear is that they don’t fit in with the people listed before or after them. There are other probate records that I’m looking at that cover people of the same name in the same town and many contain direct statements of relationships, others give hints that only become clear when other records lend a hand.
When I run into people who are likely to be related and many documents will be needed to disentangle them, I like to diagram the documents. Boxes represent people and contain any personally identifying. Different types of lines for different relationships with multiple lines for multiple possibilities. A solid line that is horizontal might represent a marriage, other solid lines are for parent-child relationships, dashed lines for grandchildren, dotted lines for witnesses and administrators of estates, dot-dash for neighbors, etc. Different colors can represent different documents if I use several documents overlapping in one diagram.
Seeing at a glance what multiple documents imply and how they might fit together can make the difference.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | August 25, 2013
I spent last week in Fort Wayne at the FGS conference. It was great to be there and tremendously exciting to be there as a speaker. It was an intense week. There was a lot of inspiration to be had but not much time to think through a blog post.
I figured I would be speaking in one of the smaller rooms since I haven’t spoken at a national conference before. My first talk was on Swedish research, a niche topic. I checked where it would be and sure enough it was in a small room. After that presentation I thought it would be a good idea to know where I’d be speaking the next morning. I was more than a bit blown away—the second biggest room in the conference center. When the signs were set up showing the next day’s speakers I thought I really needed to double check. I found this pair of signs out in front of the big rooms with my name for the second talk in room A. The picture is disappointingly grainy (click it to have a good chance of actually reading it) but I still can’t quite believe the list of names when I look at it.
By Daniel Hubbard | August 18, 2013
Last week I was approached by a friend that noticed that I would soon be giving a presentation that involved the word “myth.” She had thought that I was going to talk about myth in the sense of those ever-present figments of the genealogical imagination like “the name was changed at Ellis Island.”
My talk is going to be about a particular story that is of a type that slowly evolves from family story to mythological story but that other kind, the name-was-changed kind, are interesting. They haunt the genealogical landscape waiting to divert the unwary.
One of my favorites (or least favorites, depending on your point of view) is “it’s a fact because it is in print” also known as “why would someone bother to write it down if it weren’t true.” There are, of course many reasons. Lying, honestly believing something is true when it isn’t, mistakes, misreadings, misprints, records that make something clear that is disproved by records that were not known at the time of writing, things that were hypotheses but mistaken for proven fact.
In 1897 Charles Stocking published a two volume, 555 page work entitled The History and Genealogy of the Knowltons of England and America. What would happen if we followed the if-it-is-in-print-it-is-true methodology? Normally, it would be a quite arduous task to attempt to determine what parts of a work of that magnitude still seem to pass for truth. I would not want to do that enormous job but in this case the experiment has been carried out. There is another book, Errata and Addenda to Dr. Stocking’s History and Genealogy of the Knowltons of England and America.
The results might be a bit surprising. That book of errata was published only six years later and would have been published sooner at a cost of $1.25 per copy if the magnitude of the task had not pushed the time back and driven the cost to $2.25. The length of that book is what might be most surprising—158 pages. Think about that. The errata and addenda that could be prepared not long after the original work, ran to more than one quarter of that work’s length. Some of the errata were instructions to strike a paragraph or two of text as being erroneous. At least in such cases the errata are much more compact than the original with one sentence covering many. This clearly eliminates a sizable part of those volumes from the realm of “fact.” What does that mean for the prospect of doing accurate research without getting back as close as possible to the original records? What does it mean for using a work without checking what research came later?
Dr. Stocking did not write the errata but he did compose a preface for that book. I think it is enlightening both for its window into the methodology and because a significant level of inaccuracy was suspected even before publication.
When the “Knowlton Ancestry” was published the Historian called the attention of all subscribers to the almost insuperable difficulties encountered in preparing an absolutely perfect genealogical record. Some members of a family care so little about whence they came or whither they are going that they do not even answer letters of respectful inquiry. Some have such imperfect records records, and different members of the same family have such variations in dates and confusion of facts that the “Knowlton Ancestry” should contain errors, which it was then promised should be corrected.
This work, together with the complete index, has now been accomplished, and much addenda called forth by the original work has been collected by Mr. George Henry Knowlton, of Albany, N.Y., whose painstaking labor, for four years, and unselfish interest entitle him to the gratitude of all subscribers.
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