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Thinking about Thinking

By Daniel Hubbard | September 8, 2014

The Thinker by Rodin

The Thinker by Rodin

I just watched an interesting video. It was not at all about family history and yet it was one of those times when the parallels jumped out at me. The speaker was a philosopher that discussed a story known as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the idea of metacognition, that is, thinking about thinking. Whether one agrees with him or not, the points were worth thinking about.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is, perhaps the world’s oldest surviving work of literature. It dates from roughly 4,500 years ago. Its survival, in an of itself, is pretty awe inspiring and that is something I want to get back to. He also mentioned how literature that has stood the test of time tends to be full of thinking about thinking. That might sound overly cerebral, but even fiction with a great deal of violence contains a great deal of thinking about strategy—what is my opponent thinking? If I do this, how will my opponent respond?

Stories that captivate people let us see what is going on in the characters’ minds even when that is not the point of the story. We need to understand how they think and what they think about what other characters are thinking. That is the way people work and if characters never show any signs of thinking about thinking they seem flat and uninteresting. The philosopher in the video found few if any signs of thinking about thinking in the Epic of Gilgamesh, making it an odd literary classic.

Genealogy and Thinking about Thinking

So what does this have to do with genealogy and family history? I suspect one of the reasons that The Epic of Gilgamesh is relatively popular is that it is extremely old for what it is. Being the oldest work of literature that we have gives it some automatic power of attraction. We are interested in extremes. Though things happen in it that are recognizable today, it also has the powerful feel of the alien to it. The odd and unusual will at least briefly hold our attention. Sometimes in genealogy when we go back to distant times, what we find becomes generally interesting simply because it is from so long ago. When we stretch time to its breaking point, whether it is with an ancient epic or research that stretches back for centuries, people find it interesting. When we encounter that mix of familiar and alien that we often find when looking at people from long ago, we find that fascinating. Some things are so recognizable and yet others are so strange. That dissonance that we encounter in the distant past interests us.

Getting back to the philosopher’s point, Gilgamesh has action. Things happen. Yet, the characters don’t do much of any thinking about thinking. The characters are flat. Often that is what we get if we stop our research once we have the names and dates. We may not produce great works of literature about our ancestors, but when enough information survives, we can at least start to bring them to life. We may never be able to know what sort of thinking about thinking some did. Other ancestors left behind enough to start to get into their heads. When we have enough to start our own thinking about their thinking, they start to become people once again. I think when we can, it is our duty to do that.

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A Man of Letters

By Daniel Hubbard | September 1, 2014

I’ve been translating Swedish letters lately and I’m struck by the personalities. Most letters from more than a century ago start with the discussion of health. It seems to be a general feature of letters in the western world at that time. There is the boilerplate proclamation of good health and the question about the readers health. It is easy enough to see why. In a world before Facebook updates, tweets, instant messaging, email and the telephone, a lot could happen between times when you contacted someone. Since it was also a time before vaccines, antibiotics, antiseptics and a long list of surgical procedures we now take for granted, it would be no surprise when someone’s health took a turn for the worse between letters. Just being told that the letter writer was alive was worthwhile news.

Nevertheless, every writer could still show their personality. Some follow their statements of good health with confessions of every ill and pain that they suffer through. They might then go one to detail all the sufferings of other family members, whose good health was just assured. It reminds me a bit of how we ask “How’s it going?” more to mean “Hi” than to actually ask a question that we expect will result in an honest and complete answer.

In another letter, there was a brief bit of boilerplate but not as much because a parent was writing to a child who was staying with grandparents. A bit of personality and ethical code comes through s bit later in the letter. The child was carefully instructed on how to erase the cancellation marks from the stamps on the envelope, then remove the stamps and reuse them to send a letter back.

Pure Ancestral Personality

One letter writer never put in any of the boilerplate. He threw in foreign words in several languages and used obscure nicknames for friends. His words are often abbreviated, strange and probably slang. I’ve come to think of him as a bit of  a 19th century hipster. Though his age was never mentioned, he gives the feel of being in his twenties. He was writing to a young woman and refers to himself as an old admirer. Every other sentence seems to be an inside joke. It has meaning and yet doesn’t and then ends with an exclamation point, as if we’ve reached another punchline. He seems to be flirting at the same time that he jokes that she will be marrying soon but since he wrote that in letters spanning several years, one wonders if this was nothing more than joking and flirting. He even claims to have seen her in a dream at another man’s side and dressed for a formal occasion and he asked if perhaps he should have dreamed about her dressed in white. He put silly drawings into his letters. He wrote of selling a cure for nervous exhaustion and rheumatism (yes, that is one medication for both conditions). He didn’t write about how well it worked, or anyone who had actually been helped. What he did write about was selling it and that seems to have been its most important property as a medication, the fact that people paid him for it. He ended that letter by writing that if she heard of any jobs suitable for an idiot, would she kindly let him know.

Those letters from this otherwise unknown man leave one guessing about the facts, other than perhaps the recipient’s address. His personality seems to be the one thing that these letters actually convey. As genealogists we tend to think about a the facts of a small set of life events, and for good reason. Nevertheless, once we know who people are, and have found the basic facts of their lives, there are other things to investigate. There are the little facts and stories we can reconstruct. If we are really lucky, we can even begin to understand personality. Sometimes we can guess at an ancestor’s personality by the things that they did. If we are really fortunate, we might be able to find bits of a personality recorded in an ancestor’s own writings. In this case, the letters are almost pure personality with little intelligible information. The letter writer’s personality is what comes through. What about the recipient’s personality? Well, she did save those letters after all.

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While the Shutter is Closed

By Daniel Hubbard | August 24, 2014

Sometimes one hears that the census is like getting a snapshot of a family taken every ten years. The time between “exposures” does change from place to place but many countries have settled into the once per decade pattern. In the U.S. state censuses can sometimes be used to cut the time that the shutter is closed down to five years but it is still a pretty extreme form of time-lapse photography.

Often we might wish that the census was taken more often, that the enumerators clicked the census camera’s shutter a bit more often. In other cases ten years isn’t such a bad time between exposures. It is always possible that nothing much happened. The family stayed put. No one died. No one was born. The same people can be found in the same town with minor changes, decade after decade in some cases. That might be true but is it really what happened?

I’m working on a great example of when that isn’t at all what happened. In one census we can find father, mother, son and daughter. The two children are in high school. Ten years later in the same town, but a different house, we find the same four people making up a household. They are ten years older and the children are working but if this was all one had it would seem to clearly be one of those nothing-much-happened situations. Except that in the intervening ten years both children had moved hundreds of miles to attend elite universities; mother and daughter traveled to Europe where they lived several years as she furthered her education; the father, not needing a house for a whole family, sold it; the son worked his way to Europe on a steamer, returned, and graduated from law school; another house in the same town was purchased and the whole family reconvened just in time to be recorded as if they had only moved down the street.

A lot can happen between clicks of the shutter even if the pictures taken show little change at all. You only learn it by looking elsewhere while the census shutter is closed.

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Once I’m a Distant Ancestor and Blogiversary V

By Daniel Hubbard | August 17, 2014

Last year at this time, I wondered when my “tradition” of starting my blogiversary post with a short real post and then a few thoughts on my favorite posts from the past year would become an official tradition. Well, I think at year five of this blog, I need to admit that it is a tradition and the quotation marks need to come off. So here is to tradition!

Once I’m a Distant Ancestor

When we research our family history, we generally want to put meat on as many bones as possible. We want stories and connections to history. What about our descendants? What meat will they put on our bones?

Last week my family and I went to a presentation about the Berlin Wall. It was on the anniversary of the Wall’s construction and in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall coming up in November. In 1989 when protests and revolution swept through Eastern Europe, I was living in France and working in Switzerland. It was a fascinating and exciting time with some worry to be sure but also lots of optimism. When I saw the first images of people celebrating on top of the Wall, a place that previously would have meant their instant death just trying to get to it, that image became etched into my mind. I want that to be some of the historical meat that my descendant put on my bones. So often those images that we remember so clearly are not so joyful.

The next summer when East Germany still officially existed and the Wall still stood in many places, a few of us drove all night to get to Berlin and see Roger Waters perform The Wall at the Wall. The drive was bizarre with one lane of the old southern access road leading to Berlin filled with slow moving, haze-belching East German Trabants and the other lane effectively reserved for West German Porsches and Mercedes. Anyone like us who had a car that couldn’t do 200 kilometers/hour and who didn’t want to travel at 40 kph either, had to zig-zag back and forth continuously.

When we went to the concert it was apparent that someone had tried to put up barricades to channel the crowd. In 1990, Berliners were done with walls and barricades. We saw those barricades knocked over into the street. We saw them stacked in heaps. We saw them heaved into dumpsters. We didn’t see them in place and it all seemed very appropriate. It really couldn’t have been any other way. Counts vary but something around 300,000 people attended that show in what had been the no-man’s-land near Potsdamer Platz eight months earlier. It is the one time in my life that I was where it was clearly cooler to be than anywhere else on Earth. I want that meat placed on the factual bones of my existence as well.

It is something to think about. What stories and connections to history do we want attached to us in the future? When we discover things about our ancestors they are probably just a sample, whatever happened to have been somewhat randomly preserved. If we showed what we know to them, what would they want to add? What would we want to add a century from now if we had the chance? What do we want to make sure is remembered?

Blogiversary V

My annual blogiversary ought to start with something get the party mood going. Nothing in the last year got my party mood going like speaking for 200+ people at the FGS conference in Fort Wayne last year. I still can’t believe that happened at my first national conference.  I’m still shaking my head at the list of other presenters on those signs.

Parties need guests and guests have identities.

Parties are often because of particular occasions. Even if it is the wrong time of year, I had more fun writing A Genealogist’s Halloween than any other post this past year. Parties also need a place to be held. A memory palace would seem to be the right place, of course you need to know where you are to find it.

Sometimes after a party memories are a bit hazy, which makes it hard, though perhaps more interesting, to write that tell-all book.

That’s all for this time. Thanks so much for coming to the party!

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Painting Your Ancestors into a Corner

By Daniel Hubbard | August 10, 2014

Some ancestors make life easy on us. They can be found in record after record. Their names are clearly written and spelled in a way that makes sense. They seem always to be recorded with enough extra information to really be sure that they are who we think they are.

Some ancestors seem to refuse to be identified. Everything is ambiguous. The name both common and questionable as written. The place is iffy. Nothing matches really well and several people might paint brushbe the person you are after. Of course, it might be that none of them is right. It is time to try to paint that ancestor into a corner. Take what you think you know about the problem person. Born 1840? Try eliminating people who seem to have been born before 1835. Paint that part of the floor. Eliminate people born after 1845. Paint that part of the floor too. Next, what about places? Was your ancestor supposedly born in New York? Paint other states that aren’t neighboring. To be a bit more generous, maybe New Hampshire shouldn’t be painted since it is close and begins with “New.” If your source for New York was really questionable, maybe nothing at all in New England should be painted. The idea is to really put some thought into what the constraints are—what should really not be true of that ancestor. Try to eliminate people who fall within those unacceptable names, dates, places, etc. Who is left? Can more constraints be found, like occupation perhaps? Someone who was a machinist one year might be a machinist or a mechanic the next year but probably not a butcher.

If there are several people left in the unpainted corner, only more research can eliminate them. Is the last person, hemmed in by the paint the correct person? That still needs to be proven but from what you know, that person is the most likely candidate. Eliminate that person too and it is time to wipe away some of the paint and consider the people who were painted into those places.

Note: For anyone who is a glutton for punishment, the idea for this way of thinking about cornering our difficult ancestors occurred to me when I was reminded of learning a mathematical technique called linear programing. It might seem simple but it actually can get complex. (The version I learned in grade school was way over at the simple end of the spectrum!) I was amused to read that it wasn’t developed until World War II, when it was created for helping the Red Army optimize its planning, and was kept secret until 1947. Though painting our ancestors into corners isn’t quite the same thing as linear programing, that it is even very vaguely related to something that was a state secret within living memory seems pretty odd.

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It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where You Are Researching?

By Daniel Hubbard | August 3, 2014

When I lived in France and before I had kids, I had a large map of Europe that I mounted on a sheet of corrugated cardboard. I had it hanging on the wall and every time I visited a new place, I stuck a pin into that spot. To add a bit of information, I changed pin colors every year so that I could see not just where I had been but when I had been there. Most of the time, the exact year that I had been somewhere didn’t really matter but there were times when it did. The pin for Lucerne showed that I had been there before the famous 14th century covered bridge, the Kapellbrücke, burned. It has since been restored but having walked it before the fire does mean something to me.

These days much of my traveling is in the form of seeing places through their documents. I means I get to travel just about every day and not just to different places but to different times as well. If I still had that map of Europe and a map of North America as well, I could now be adding pins for places I’ve researched. That brings up the question of what does it mean to have researched in a place?

1794_map_of_the_world_pinsFor example. I’ve researched in German records. Logically, that means I’ve researched in records that were produced in Germany. Yet many of the “German” records that I have used were not produced in a place that was within the jurisdiction of Germany at the time because there was no such jurisdiction. Germany might have existed as a concept but it did not exist as a nation-state. One might then think that it is a matter of language. A “German” record would then be a record from Central Europe that was written in German. Many, including Austrians and Swiss, would disagree with that.

I’ve researched in records produced within the Austrian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which one could argue was the same place except that they were under two rather different different organizations. I’ve researched in records that came from the Austrian part and the Hungarian part. Does that count as two places? Most people today would say “yes” but though some of those “Hungarian” records were in Hungarian, others were in German, which probably still doesn’t make them Austrian records. It certainly wouldn’t make them German records even if they were written in German. Because they were created under Austrian, or Hungarian or Austro-Hungarian law they must belong to one of those places. Make sense? Also, some of those “Hungarian” records were written in neither Hungarian nor German but were in Latin instead. Did I mention that many of those records came from places that are no longer within the boarders of Hungary? Where would I put those pins?

I research extremely often in Swedish records. I have also researched in Norwegian records. Those places are close but they are clearly two places—except that during most of the 19th century they were sort of one place, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, which still functioned as two places from the point of view of their record keeping. I suppose I could put a pin in each in good conscience.

I’ve researched in the records of the United Kingdom quite a bit, but one normally thinks of those “united” parts as separate when it comes to the records. Researching in Scotland isn’t the same as researching in England, for example. Then there is Ireland, which people sometimes forget was, in its entirety, part of the United Kingdom within living memory. We often need to talk about the “United Kingdom including Ireland” even though back at the time being referred to, there is no question that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. So, do I put in pins for all the countries that were in the United Kingdom in the 19th century? Does researching in records from northern Ireland count as a different place if they were created before there was a jurisdiction called Northern Ireland? Is that a fifth pin? If a record was created in one place but accessed under the jurisdiction of another place, does that count as two places or only one?

I’ve researched in Canadian records. Of course many of them were created when the word “Canada” might have meant something but before 1867 it didn’t mean what it means today. Was I researching in New Brunswick, Quebec/Lower Canada/Canada East and Ontario/Upper Canada/Canada West as separate places, which they were or as parts of Canada, which they are now? How many pins do I put in my map?

Then there is the United States. How many places is it? Before 1776 it was clearly several places. It wasn’t just 13 places either. If I put a pin into Massachusetts, does that cover the state, the colony, and the original Massachusetts Bay Colony, and for that matter, Plymouth Colony? I’ve researched in records produced in all those versions of, and ingredients in, “Massachusetts.”

Then there is the question of the colors for my pins, I might color them by the year that I first researched in those records. I might also color them based on the time period that I had researched. Both color systems would have some useful meaning. Places change with time, jurisdictions that hold the records change with time. It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where you are researching?



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Doing Odd Jobs

By Daniel Hubbard | July 27, 2014

I sometimes imagine certain things that can only be called genealogists’ blessings. This week one of them has turned up over and over. It would go something like this-

May all your ancestors have had truly odd occupations.

Having a deeply strange occupation or even just a slightly unusual job can make the difference between an ancestor that you can follow through the records and an ancestor that fades into the background noise. It can also be a way of spotting connections between people in the days when occupations tended to run in families. In my own family there is a man with s somewhat unusual surname. He was a plasterer. I’ve stumbled across some men with that name and a few of them have also been plasterers. Every one of those plasterers has turned out to be a relative of some sort. Every one. The families with that name that don’t include a plasterer might be related as well, but if so, the relationship is more distant.

This week I have researched an ambrotypist (a photographer who took a type of photograph known as an ambrotype), a leaf maker (someone who made artificial leaves, in this case for women’s hats), a lace merchant and a button hole maker (someone who drilled holes into unfinished buttons in the days before they were molded from plastic). Though I dream of the day that one of my research targets proves to be Brooklyn’s only yak herder, every one of those occupations is odd enough to be a wonderful help for research. That leaf maker can move around almost all he wants but as long as his unusual occupation is listed, he can run but he can’t really hide from us.

Keeping track of occupations isn’t just for putting meat on the genealogical bones. What a person did for a living can be the most important clue you have. I wonder of my own descendents will appreciate that I can be found with the occupations  particle physicist and genealogists at different stages of my life.

Now off to see if Brooklyn ever had a yak herder…

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Researching FANs

By Daniel Hubbard | July 20, 2014

Summer is, perhaps, the right time to think about fans—except that the kind of fans that I’ve been thinking about aren’t for keeping cool and they don’t cheer at the ballpark. I don’t even mean entering names from my pedigree into a fan chart. I’m working with a different kind of fan for a client. This FAN stands for Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors.

Wait, isn’t genealogy about ancestors? Why would one want to study all those extra people?

Much of the time we don’t need to study those extra people. They may be interesting in their own right. They may add spice to what we know of our ancestors but they aren’t absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, there are times when our ancestors seem to vanish into the crowd. Then we need to understand the crowd to find them. Put another way, you can’t find a needle in a haystack without ever touching any of the hay.

Neighbors should be a clear concept. Land records and censuses can be quite explicit about who the neighbors were. How does one know about friends and acquaintances? Letters, local histories, court records and even wills can be explicit about those people but there are more subtle clues. Who witnessed a document? Who performed various services related to probate? Who shared an unusual occupation or had the same work address listed in a directory? Almost any document can produce a unique clue about Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors. I’ve been playing around with acronyms for places where one might look for FANs. One place to look for a fan is on the ceiling.


Employers and employees,
Itinerants (even boarders can be a clues),
Locals (sometimes we might define neighbor too narrowly),
Immigrants (who else was on the boat?),
Nationals (from the same country or with the same native language?),
Group members (Connections exist between members of organizations)

Odd connections can turn out not to be so odd if you show that a group was tight-knit. In what I’m working on now, a woman’s brother’s sister-in-law’s father’s neighbor has the same unusual surname as the siblings’ mother. Coincidence? It might be, but the more I study this group, the more tightly bound they appear to be. The lines that I draw to connect people to the documents that show them together form quite a tangled web. It seems that if one of them knew someone or was related to someone, then they all knew that person. More and more, it seems that they were also all related. Where there are relatives, there are greater chances to find ancestors.

Good luck finding CEILING FANs or any other type of FAN. They just might provide the clue you need.

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Sign Here Please

By Daniel Hubbard | July 13, 2014

Today when we think of autograph books, we think of a fan holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other, arms outstretched toward some celebrity. Having one of those once owned by your grandmother might tell you something about her tastes at one stage of her life but it wouldn’t really serve as a useful genealogical resource.

Autograph books have been around since the 1400s. They were not then what they have become. In the early days of autograph books, they were used by university students to collect the signatures of professors and classmates. The modern yearbook descends from that use of the autograph book. Unfortunately, the number of people who can trace their ancestry back to someone who graduated from a university ca. 1480 is rather small and the chance that the right autograph book has survived, or ever existed, doesn’t give one much hope.

Nineteenth Century

A 19th century autograph book. photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

A 19th century autograph book.
photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

Nineteenth century autograph books are another matter. Even then, university students were a rare breed, but the use of autograph books had spread well beyond them. The books were especially common among children.  Friends still signed but so did another group of people that perks up our genealogical ears—relatives. I’ve used autograph books several times in research and I’ve learned that those relatives can be very kind to the genealogists who would later appear in their families. Simply signing “Cousin Roger” can be helpful. Usually people dated entries as well, so that means we can be sure that Cousin Roger signed on June 23, 1888. That’s better. Sometimes those relatives added the town where they lived. Now we have Cousin Roger signing on June 23, 1888 and telling us that he lived in Cornerville, Illinois. That makes it even more interesting. There is one last possibility. Cousin Roger might not have signed “Cousin Roger.” Instead he might have signed “Cousin Roger Haskell.” If that wasn’t your ancestor’s surname, that name could be new to you. If you don’t know the maiden name of the mother of the autograph book’s owner, you may have found a very big clue.

If we leave Cousin Roger behind, one last thing to point out about these books has to do with the age of the original owner. Because they were often young, older relatives were typically among the signers. People in the owner’s generation are wonderful to identify. People one or two generations back can be even better. Finding the signature of “Grandpa Hartman, Oakton, Iowa” could just lead to that elusive genealogical adrenaline rush. “Uncle Horace Haskell” signing the same day as Cousin Roger wouldn’t be so bad either.

 Just for Fun

There are fun things in these books as well. Often people did not simply sign. They might scribble out a short poem or aphorism or perhaps add a quick sketch. It tells you something about the personality of the signer and perhaps their impression of what the book’s owner might like.

The poems can be serious, as in the example image in this post, but they are often a bit fluffy or silly. They tend to be something well known with just a few words changed to fit the occasion-

Roses are red,
Tree bark is brown,
I look forward to seeing you,
Next time I’m in town.

I just made that up, but it is the type of thing that one finds. It is interesting  that people of the late nineteenth century seemed to have a much richer set of silly knock-off poems to choose from than we have today. You won’t be stuck with twenty versions of “Roses are red” if you read an old autograph book.

One can also find somewhat heavier statements in autograph books from time to time. Sentences like “Remember that the hand of our mighty Lord rests upon you in judgement now and always” are rare but do appear.  Those also tell us something about the person who would write that in the autograph book of a child.

Autograph Hunting

These books are not something that you are likely to run into casually but they do still exists. Some archival collections contain a set of autograph books. Relative’s attics are another prime category of storage location. When interviewing relatives it is always wise to ask about family mementos, especially that family Bible you’ve heard of but that no one can locate. Another wise thing to ask about are small, thin books between the size of a credit card and a post card. They may say nothing at all on the cover. They may be full of autographs.

Happy hunting!


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By Daniel Hubbard | July 6, 2014

A few years ago about this time of year, when independence is an important word, I wrote a post about data independence—the idea that only independent data improves our knowledge. When data all derives from the same source it is dependent. More dependent data does nothing to help us move our research forward.

I’ve been thinking about that again both because of the time of year and because of the talk on DNA that I’m working on.

One of the things that makes DNA so useful is its independence from documents and the human memories that produced them. DNA is also free from questions of tampering (at least for now) and provenance. Virtually every document we use is a written version of  a memory. The memory may be correct or incorrect. It might be fresh or faded. It might have been checked or corroborated at the time or it might not. It might be an attempt to relate what happened or in a few cases it might be intentionally altered, bending the truth or altering it beyond all recognition.

DNA is a chemical memory, not a mental one. A DNA test might give a false positive or a false negative. It might even give correct and yet truly bizarre results in those rare cases of chimerism in which a person is their own twin and passes on DNA to their children that does not at all correspond to what was found by the familiar swab of the check. For the most part though, DNA correctly tells us about the biological relationships that form that part of our personal past. It yields that information in a way that is independent of of any memory or document. It does not come filled with names, dates and places as documents do. Without help it is silent on those points but it does tell an almost unerring story of the the links between us.

Yet the whole point of DNA evidence is dependence. Your DNA depends on your parents DNA, which depended on their parents DNA. If you find a match, the reason that you have done so is that your match’s DNA depends on the DNA of an ancestor you have in common. It is the lack of independence from person to person that gives DNA its value to genealogy. My DNA and my distant cousin’s DNA both depend on one or two long ago people who passed on the DNA that doesn’t just partially determine who we are, it identifies the link between us.

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