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The Nonfiction Contract

By Daniel Hubbard | June 1, 2014

We research our ancestors to learn the facts about them, about their lives, their times, the places they lived, their occupations, and travels. The list, as they say, goes on. First we gather documents that are clearly relevant. Then we gather documents that are more subtly related to our ancestors. Though we may never finish collecting evidence, after a time we have enough to move on. We start to deeply analyze the evidence. We start to combine little clues into bigger conclusions. We know what we think happened here and why we think a path went untaken there.

Eventually, it is not enough to have the information locked up in our files, our databases, our heads. How do we communicate it? We know more than just the evidence. In research the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have our conclusions and our hypotheses. To pass those things along we need to write. Not just any writing will interest a grandchild or a cousin or some relative who has not even been born. So we write stories. We try to make them interesting. we try to make them flow. They are not just any stories, either.

Gerrit_Dou_-_Scholar_sharpening_a_quill_pen_300We write nonfiction not fiction. The line between them can be a fuzzy one but we need to make it sharp and then we cannot cross it. The writer has an unwritten contract, the nonfiction contract, with the reader. The writer can infer but not invent. The reader places their trust in the veracity of the words on the page. The writer cannot violate that trust. If the writer has reason to believe but does not know, that is what must be communicated to the reader. If the evidence is unclear or contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled, the reader ought to taste that mystery as well, not be fed false clarity. I often find as I write the stories of people’s families that I could easily make a story flow and grab the reader but it is easy only if I subtly imply that things are known that are not known. In some cases the written lines themselves might be correct but lead the reader to places between the lines that are simply not quite right. I can also easily tell the story that is factually perfect but that trips over itself as it dots its “i’s” and crosses its “t’s.” Much of the craft of writing the stories that rise from the facts that we uncover is to present the facts, the probabilities and the possibilities so that the reader knows the difference between them at the same time they are drawn in by the narratives of long-gone, reconstructed lives. Or, perhaps, to lead the reader to a possibility without ever stating it, without ever implying that it is fact, and letting them realize what might have happened for themselves.

When we pass on our research, we need to engage but we also need to be aware of the promise that we make to the reader. We have that contract, the nonfiction contract, with them. The reader must be able to trust that they are reading the facts as best we know them. They need to know the difference between the certainties and the likelies.


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By Daniel Hubbard | May 25, 2014

It is a long weekend in the U.S. The one that traditionally starts the summer. For many it is a weekend for getting into the car and driving, sometimes down expressways, sometimes down smaller, winding roads.

As a child one of the things that fascinated me about driving vacations was how once one returned to familiar places, those places seemed different, as if they had been transformed. Apparently part of any feeling of familiarity or strangeness that one experiences in the moment is actually something that has lingered. That still fascinates me.

I have that same experience when observing “now” after researching the past. Returning to the present after poring over places at times when they had no names except for the names of the creeks that flowed through them is a return without familiarity. Returning from a world of canals and towpaths or watermills and grindstones is a return without familiarity. The past lingers and, for a little while, the present seems so strange.

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Records Evolve

By Daniel Hubbard | May 18, 2014

Records evolve. Some records are created to preserve specific information. These certainly change over time. Go far enough back in time and death records might not give the cause of death, something you expect to see today.

Other records are created to gather statistics. These, it seems, evolve much faster. If one simply wants to know the population of a place one might just count. With enough people that can go seriously wrong. Maybe you might count the number of people in each household then add. That’s better and you’d be less likely to lose count but you have no way of knowing if two households with 4 people are really the same one counted twice. You need a way to label each household. You might use one person’s name. Nevertheless, you might want to know how old the people in the household are. Instead of writing a list of ages, you could count how many 0-10-year-olds there are and how many 11-20-year-olds there are in each household. You’d probably end up dividing the age groups by gender as well. After all, if you wan to figure out how big an army you could have now or how big it might be in the near future, it is the number of males that you’d want to know. If you want to figure out how much the population might grow, then it is most useful to know the number of females in different age groups.

As time goes on, you might realize that you could really use more accurate age information so you make smaller and smaller age categories until it takes a lot of space just to write out the categories and then most of them will be empty for most households. At that point, you might decide that it would be simpler to write down everyone’s name and age. That would make it less likely to count someone twice. After all, how do you know if Johnny Doe wasn’t a 6-10 year-old son in one household and a 6-10-year-old nephew in another? You would also need just one space for the age. Do you really need exact ages though? Maybe it would be good enough to round the ages down to the nearest multiple of 5? On the other hand, why do all that rounding? Rounding a number is easy but rounding the 600th number when you’re tired can go wrong. Maybe the exact age would be best anyway.

You might also want to know how people are moving around. It could be good to ask them where they were born but not too accurately. We don’t need a street name. Maybe we could ask what part of the country someone was from. Maybe we could ask if they were from this part of the country or any other part or another country all together. Perhaps it would be interesting to know where someone’s parents were born? That would help to understand migrations. How about asking where someone lived before they came to the place where they are now?

All That Has Been Tried

Every one of those evolutionary steps occurred in census taking somewhere. At first it can seem mysterious. Why would information be recorded that way? Then you stop and think about it. Information costs. The more information you gather, the more you have to process. The more fine grained the information, the more work it is to gather it into statistically useful chunks. From that perspective, it seems obvious to try to gather at little as possible and gather it in a way that is already in those statistically useful chunks.

Soon you start to realize that there are problems with that strategy. If you gather very little information, you have very little way to decide if you have recorded someone once and only once. So you gather a bit more. You also realize that if you gather it in chunks that are too large (Say, every male over the age of 44 in one age group as in early U.S. censuses), then you might have questions that you can’t answer. So you evolve your census by adding age groups until you realize that you’ve taken it to such an extreme that it would be more efficient to get the exact information (It took 4 ledger pages to contain all the categories of the 1840 U.S. census). If you decided to kill two birds with one stone and try to minimize double counting by taking down everyone’s name and get rid of the age categories by taking down exact age, then you end up with something like the 1850 U.S. Census. That wasn’t the only way to go. You could take down everyone’s name but round the ages. You wouldn’t need all those category boxes but you would get the ages in 5-year-wide categories if you rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5 as was done in the 1841 census of Great Britain.

What about place of birth? First, until you take down every name you can’t really take down everyone’s place of birth. There might have been an intermediate stage where “unnamed 17 year-old male” was recorded as being born in New York, or some such thing but I don’t know that any census ever worked that way as a rule. The problem with places in the census has always been the level of detail to record. In the U.S. Federal census, the solution was always state or country of birth. New York chose to be more accurate and recorded the county of birth (if born in New York) in some of their state censuses. That greater accuracy when close to home is a philosophy that comes up in both census taking and in our everyday speech. When we are far from home, naming the closest big city to where we live is close enough.

In Britain there was an intermediate step before simply writing down the name of a place. In 1841 people were asked if they were born within the county where they were currently living. The meaning of a “yes” is clear and you learn the county of birth. The meaning of a “no” is not so clear. That meant that they were currently living within the U.K. country (e.g. Scotland) where they were born but not the same county. If a person was living in a different country of the U.K. from where they were born, there would be no answer at all. Instead the next column over would name the country or, if the person was born outside the U.K. it would simply indicate that the person was foreign. That probably came to seem both confusing and prone to error. Ten years later, exact town and county of birth started to be recorded but they followed the same thinking as the State of New York. That accuracy was only achieved close to home. If you were born in a different country of the U.K. from where you were living, exact information would not be recorded for many years.

What about other locations? The U.S. Federal census started to record parents’ places of birth in 1880 and recorded that until 1930. In 1940 only a subset of people had that information recorded. Who recorded where a person came from immediately before they came to where they were living? Kansas asked that question for a while when many people in their state census were likely to have come to Kansas from outside.

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Not Quite Gone

By Daniel Hubbard | May 11, 2014

I found a reference to a man, Anders, that I was researching. It was a reference to his drowning. I checked the death registers for the date that was given and sure enough, he was listed. So were two other men. There was a note squeezed into the margin. It was hard to read but the meaning was clear. Three farmers had gone out onto the lake in a boat on an early winter day and none of them survived. They were all buried the same day, longer than normal after they died, a hint that perhaps it had taken time to recover the bodies. On the date that he was buried, I found that Anders’s wife gave birth to his final child, a boy she named Anders. A sad and simple story of the kind that just waits for a genealogist to rediscover it.

The day after I discovered that story, it nearly slipped away again. My computer became hot and, unless I squeezed it in just the right way, the screen shimmered pink. Stories, facts, data and little details can all disappear. With a new computer and plenty of backups of the old one, nothing was lost. Data recovery is not always so easy.

Sometimes not everything is backed up but even bringing a little back can bring a thrill. If you ever do Irish research, you know just how much was lost there—so many records burned, destroyed as unnecessary, or reduced to pulp to make new paper. The 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 censuses are commonly regarded as having been totally lost during the Irish Civil War.  Yet in some few cases there was a backup here and a document that survived there and and now the National Archives of Ireland has gathered and collated what remains of censuses enumerated almost two centuries ago.

Other information from those censuses survived in a different way. In 1908 a new pension system was instituted in the United Kingdom. To prove their ages, many wrote for extracts from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. Their names, ages, places of birth and parents still survive in those extracts even if the census returns themselves are long gone. Now what remains of those four censuses and the extracts made from them is online. They are both dazzling to see and saddening to see because they make clear how much information was lost. At least they are not quite gone.

Do you have backups of your data?

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I is for Identity

By Daniel Hubbard | May 4, 2014

Identity must be one of the most fascinating facets of genealogy.

Isak and Ovra where recorded twice as parents. Those were the names that were written into the birth registers. When one of their sons died the information about his parents matched Isak and Ovra with one exception, their names. Ignatz and Charlotte were the dead man’s parents. So much for Isak and Ovra as the identities of the parents.

Isak and Ovra lived in Austria. Ignacz and Lotti were found in Hungary. So much for Isak and Ovra as the parents.

Living with Ignacz and Lotti were their two sons—sons with the same names and years of birth as the sons of Isak and Ovra. Interesting. Nevertheless Ignacz and Lotti’s boys were born at Bécs. Isak and Ovra’s boys were born in Vienna. So they can’t be the same.

The only question left is the identity of Bécs. Bécs is Hungarian for Vienna. Isak is Ignatz. Ovra is Lotti. Lotti’s American descendants knew her as Charlotte and her son and his descendants gave his place of birth as Vienna. Identity can be a subtle and mysterious thing.

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Pushing the Limits

By Daniel Hubbard | April 27, 2014

There is something special about those times when records don’t simply stop but fade. Times long enough ago that identity was seen differently. A man is not known by two names but by one name and the place where he lived. When his child was born, all that was recorded was the date, his given name and the place. No mother. No name for the child. Not even the child’s gender, just the date, the place and the father.

In more recent times the wonder of genealogy often comes from reconstructing lives and resurrecting stories. Out at the edge of what is possible, the wonder comes from being able to see through the fog of time just well enough to know a single mysterious name. So many people who will never have their lives reconstructed stand out there at the limit. A vast multitude like the masked chorus of an ancient Greek play. We hear them as one because we cannot hear them separately.

Connections are there but they hang by a thread, tenuously.

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A Pope Watches the Sky

By Daniel Hubbard | April 21, 2014

A Lunar Eclipse near Totality photo by Juan lacruz, Wikimedia Commons

A Lunar Eclipse near Totality, photo by Juan lacruz, Wikimedia Commons

The full Moon occurs when the Sun and the Moon are on opposite sides of our world. We see the full face of the Moon illuminated by the Sun because as we turn up our eyes to the Moon, the Sun is shining from below our feet, lighting up the far side of the Earth. This month we were treated to the most spectacular sort of full Moon. The Sun and the Moon were not just roughly in opposite directions, they were in exactly opposite directions. The Moon passed through the Earth’s shadow and grew darker and darker until it turned sunset red. That moment when the entire Moon seems to turn to blood is the time when it is most obvious that the moment of the full Moon has been reached.

The full Moon this month is also special because it is the one that defines when Easter is celebrated and it is problems with the calculation of Easter that gave us the modern (Gregorian) calendar. Every genealogist and historian who has researched in a time and place before the arrival of the modern calendar or in a culture where it is only one of the calendars in use, needs to learn to navigate the transitions from one way of looking at time to another.

So, how does the Moon help determine Easter’s date. Easter is defined as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. Well, that is what is often said and it is approximately true but we need to make a few corrections.


The first correction, and it is perhaps a bit of nit picking is that “vernal” means spring and anyone living south of the equator might be justified in complaining that Easter takes place in the fall, not the spring. Either March equinox or Northern vernal equinox might be a better term.

Then what about the word “equinox”? The term means when day and night are equal. “Equinox” comes from Latin words meaning “equal night.” More accurately though, the equinox occurs at the particular moment when the sun is directly above a point on the Earth’s equator. The date that this moment occurs in any given year depends on where you are on the globe and can be one day different depending on your position. If that one day shift mattered, then people in some places might be celebrating Easter more than a month earlier than people in other locations. In the end though, that turns out not to happen. For purposes of computation the equinox isn’t actually used. Instead of the true equinox, which can occur on different dates in different years and on different dates depending on where you are on the Earth, the date March 21 is used. No need to observe the Sun, just use a calendar.

That calendar based solution works well as long as March 21 always occurs about when the equinox occurs. If your calendar drifts, you eventually have problems. The old Julian calendar drifted three days every 400 years. That might not seem like much but eventually Easter began to occur later and later in the year. At different times in different places, Pope Gregory’s calendar replaced the calendar of Julius Caesar. Days were dropped from years to bring the calendar back into synchronization with the Sun.

Full Moon

The second group of corrections has to do with the Moon. We think of the full Moon occurring on a specific day but of course, as we realized when thinking about lunar eclipses, the Moon is actually full at one precise moment. The problems with the full Moon are the same as the problems with the equinox. For the purpose of setting the date of Easter, the date of the full Moon is set by mathematical tables. The moment when the Moon is truly full may happen on the day given in the tables or a few days before or after.

Does it Make a Difference?

It certainly matters to the day you celebrate Easter. This year (2014) is special because Western churches (using updated calculations) and Orthodox churches (using original calculations) celebrate Easter on the same day. That last happened in 2011 and won’t happen again until 2017. As the Julian and Gregorian calendars drift apart it will happen less and less. April 24, 2698 will be the last time that the same date is used by both groups. Already now, the dates of Easter can be as much as 5 weeks apart.

To the genealogist and the historian, it makes a difference. The calendar is our map of time. Use the wrong map and we are lost, though we will think we know where, or rather when, we are. In different places, different cultures and different times, the calendar has been and still is different from what we expect. If you have ancestors from different Christian denominations, then what records with dates based on Easter, or any holy day related to Easter, can mean very different dates. In 1584, the second year after the new calendar began to be adopted, Catholics celebrated Easter on a date four weeks different than other groups. In some areas of Europe the changes made to the lunar tables were accepted decades after the change to the calendar, leading to still more dates for Easter.

There was no one map of time. There was, in fact, a giant atlas.


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Near Enough

By Daniel Hubbard | April 14, 2014

David J. Hand, the author of the book The Improbability Principle has a list of items that go into his principle-

  1. The Law of Inevitability
  2. The Law of Truly Large Numbers
  3. The Law of Selection
  4. The Law of the Probability Lever
  5. The Law of Near Enough

In the book he describes events that seem like they should never happen and shows how those laws make those events not particularly surprising.

The Odds of Finding Something

This week as I’ve been tracing immigrants back to Sweden. That means trying to determine information in American records that will be useful in matching to Swedish records. That has put the Law of Near Enough on my mind. Put simply that law means that the odds of finding something increase as you loosen your criteria for what you consider to be a match. It is easy to see how that could contribute to our sense that a coincidence has occurred. If we think that two things happened at the same moment, we might find it interesting. We might still find it interesting if they occurred during the same hour. What if they happened during the same day? The same month? Somewhere, as we alter the amount of time, those occurrences go from interesting to boring if we stop and consider the span of time. If we don’t think about it, we can be fooled into thinking that something is wildly unlikely when it is actually rather probable.

Often we don’t even think about the fact that criteria exist but, like the time span above, they do and they affect our research. In genealogy we are always trying to determine if two records correspond to the same person. What criteria do we use? We can look at the opposite of the Law of Near Enough. We can restrict the criteria we use until we will never match records with each other. How about an obituary that claims that a person died at 4am and a death certificate with information that matches the obituary in every detail but one. It records the time of death as 3:56am? Clearly different people, right? Wrong, our allowable difference between the times is ridiculously small.

Where do we draw the line? If a document records a man’s age as 50 and the person we are looking for would have been 51 at the time, is that “near enough”? Now we need to start answering questions. How common was his name? How close was the record made to the expected place (another “near enough” question)? How likely is it that the man’s age was rounded down? How likely is a misunderstanding? Did anyone have a reason to lie? Might the person who made the statement not have known any better? Might the informant have given an accurate version of their uncertainty only to have the clerk right down something exact—could “about 50″ have been said to a clerk who “simplified” the answer to “50”?

An Old Story

An apparently old story, which I have to admit I never heard before, involves a traveler going down the road passed a barn. The side of the barn was peppered with arrows, each sitting dead center in a target. The traveler concluded that a master archer lived there until turning the corner to discover a man carefully painting targets around each one of a set of arrows. As genealogists, we are stuck (so to speak) with the arrows that were shot into the barn generations ago but we do need to think about the targets that we paint around them. Draw targets that are too small and no two arrows will sit in the same target. Draw targets that are too large and arrows that have nothing to do with each other will be in the same bullseye.

So how big do we draw the targets around our documents? How far out can a document be and still be a match for another document? Make the target large enough and we will find something but that something will very likely be a false positive—something we consider “near enough” when it really isn’t. When we thought a moment ago about how common a person’s name was, that was a false positive type of thing to worry about. A woman with a very strange and unusual name who was within a few years of the correct age and found in almost the right place is much less likely to be a false positive than is a man named James Smith in otherwise identical circumstances.

Then there is the question of confirmation. The obituary and the death certificate that differ by 4 minutes in the reported time of death don’t need confirmation in order to conclude that, with everything else matching, they record the same person. On the other hand, if we don’t find a match and expand our target, what kind of confirmation will we need to really show that the bigger target was justified? Expanding our target often means needing to find more arrows that hit it.

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Top Ten

By Daniel Hubbard | April 6, 2014

In light of David Letterman’s impending retirement, here are the-

Top ten reasons to give up genealogy

10 Tired of the search result “Buy Ichabod Whittleby products on!”
9 Thought people were kidding about the 1890 census.
8 Upset by DNA match to Justin Bieber.
7 Discovered that someone has copied your idea to fill a hollowed out mountain with genealogy records.
6 Ancestral castle in Scotland turned out to be a White Castle® in Scottsburg.
5 Discovered great-grandma died in infancy.
4 Tired of accusations of plagiarism over your book, Roots.
3 That lying clerk’s insistence that the courthouse had burned when you were clearly standing inside it.
2 Your starring role in the local theater production of Who Do You Think You Are failed to land you a part on the TV show.
1 Realized that all the interesting ancestors are already taken.

If any of these reasons actually seem correct and reasonable to you, don’t give up, take a deep breath and forge on.

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The Attrition of Facts

By Daniel Hubbard | March 30, 2014

When I studied ancient history in this university many years ago, I had as a special subject “Greece in the period of the Persian Wars.” I collected fifteen or twenty volumes on my shelves and took it for granted that there, recorded in these volumes, I had all the facts relating to my subject. Let us assume—it was very nearly true—that those volumes contained all the fact about it that were then known, or could be known. It never occurred to me to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all the myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts of history.
—historian E. H. Carr as quoted in The Improbability Principle

We don’t generally research events of quite the historical importance of the Persian Wars. It was a period of fifty years that involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and left a deep imprint on the future of the world but even so, “fifteen or twenty volumes” could contain the sum total of the information about that half century of intermittent war. It makes one wonder about the “process of attrition” that has limited what we can learn about our own, more immediate, ancestors.

I’ve been researching a woman who applied for a Civil War widows pension. she was required to prove various things in order to be entered into the pension rolls. Obviously, her husband must have died. That she could prove. Equally obviously, the dead man must have been her husband. She had been married previously so she also needed to prove that her first husband had died. Those last two important events had occurred in Chicago in the years before the Great Fire of 1871 and she could not prove either of them. There was already attrition of facts in her past.

Records burn and memories fade. How often do we run into someone who consistently says that her father was from New York and her mother was from Ohio, only to find that her parents consistently said that they were from Germany and New Jersey? How often do we find the phrase “don’t know” written into the census or a death certificate?

As researchers we are often forced to rely on implications and reason to try to replace what had once been known, what had once been clearly documented. We painstakingly rebuild what attrition of facts has torn down. That, I think, is when searching for the personal past goes from interesting to sublime.

People who are interested in genealogy but not genealogists themselves are often amazed not just by what was found but by what can be found and pieced together. They are fascinated by the fact that it can be known. That amazement is something we ought to remember. We ought to take the time on occasion to sit back and ponder or perhaps “to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts” of our family history.

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