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History Super Bowl

By Daniel Hubbard | February 1, 2015

Earlier this week I listened to a podcast about Thucydides. Another one of those names that isn’t going to actually appear in anyone’s family tree (he died about 2400 years ago), but what was said about him, and his older contemporary Herodotus, got me thinking about genealogy anyway.

As founders of history we can see in them some of the principles we ought to follow. Herodotus has actually been known as the “Father of History” for over two thousand years. If Herodotus was the first historian, then Thucydides, only about twenty years younger, was the second. They even knew, or at least knew of, each other, yet the two of them are very different.  On Super Bowl Sunday,* I’m tempted to pit the two of them against each other.

The Big Game

Thucydides commented that it was difficult work to extract the truth from the stories that people told. He took the evidence he could extract, distilled it down to what seemed to him to have been the truth and related that narrative. Sounds like what we should do as family historians until one realizes that he didn’t let us know what his sources were. No source citations is not good practice. Also, in giving us his distillation, we don’t get a view into the contradictions that he resolved. We have no way to know if his resolution was a good one or if some of the evidence that he did not use might have actually been enlightening.

Herodotus told some pretty crazy sounding stories. Not a best practice in genealogy. Yet, he didn’t see it as his duty to believe the stories he related, but he did see it as his duty to preserve them. That actually sounds quite a bit better. I often tell people that just because a family story has been disproved doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be preserved. The belief in that story is, in and of itself, a part of the family’s history. Even family stories that are “wrong” can have a kernel of truth that is a clue to something not yet discovered. Throw away the story and you throw away the clue as well. Because he told those stories, we at least have an idea of where Herodotus found his information.

Thucydides saw history as an effort that concerned itself with politics and armed conflict between real people, not strange tales of quarreling, intervening gods. Sticking to likely explanations and steering clear of flights of fancy sounds like good advice for a genealogist. Touchdown Thucydides.

Herodotus’s history wasn’t immune from the effects of meddling supernatural forces but he also saw history in much broader terms and included geography and ethnology in his writings. Those are things we must often include to make our ancestors’ lives understandable. Touchdown Herodotus.

So who should inspire our genealogical inquiries? Both and neither, I would have to say. Both their styles have things in them we should emulate and things we should avoid.

* If you happen to be reading this post on your phone during the game, remember that it is a ten yard penalty to try to pronounce Thucydides with a mouth full of chips and salsa. That is the people in front of you will insist you spend the rest of the evening at least ten yards back from them.


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Topics: Genealogy, History | No Comments »

Going, Going…Saved

By Daniel Hubbard | January 25, 2015

The Web has a problem and virtually anyone who has spent time online on two different days has run into it. It’s a problem that is big enough to have recently been the topic of an article in the New Yorker. The problem goes by many names but my favorite is the most evocative—”link rot.” Link rot is the tendency for links in web pages to stop pointing to what they were intended to. Over time the links on a web page will start to point to pages that have been moved, removed, or rewritten to no longer contain the information that was the target of the original link. Unless you are reading this post not long after I wrote it, don’t be surprised if my link to the New Yorker article doesn’t work for you. Sometimes whole websites die and the information that they held goes with them. Other times the site is still out there, just moved so that the links to it no longer work. Sometimes it is just an individual page that goes away.

Citation Rot

It is no surprise that a great deal of genealogy happens on the web. How do you reference what you find there? If you make a note “found this on Ancestry” you certainly have a problem with a lack of precision but there is another problem. No one expects Ancestry to disappear tomorrow but what will that reference mean to a descendant a century from now? I’m sure there are already genealogists who would not know what “found this on” means. At least the problem is only a matter of a change of names (to Fold3). What about that really interesting page of information that you found years ago on GeoCities? Even if you saved a perfect source citation, how do you look at it now, when GeoCities is long dead? Link rot isn’t just something that happens to websites. It is something that happens to our citations as well.

Our citations are frozen in time, they represent where we found something at the time that we found it. That is as it should be. They are a record of what we did to find our information. On the other hand, they should also lead us back to that information later, and when pages change and disappear, that no longer works.

What do you do if you go back to look at a page only to find that it has changed or been deleted? The first thing to try is the Wayback Machine, the subject of the New Yorker article that got me thinking about this topic. It crawls the web archiving what it finds. It may not have saved what you want but it is the best place to look. Looking at the Wayback Machine’s crawl calendar for this site, I see that it was archived for the first time on October 9, 2009, just a few weeks after my first post. Here is the archived version of that post, Boltzmann’s Grave, from August 1 as it was when archived that October. Part of that post was about entropy, a term from physics that involves moving from order to disorder, like moving from a well crafted citation to one suffering from citation rot. Link rot is the web’s version of entropy.

Save Your Sources

The Wayback Machine can be a lifesaver for a genealogist with an old web link, but better still is to save the page itself. The information won’t always be were you found it. It may not be there tomorrow. The Wayback Machine might not have archived it. If you captured it, you’re saved. Often it is enough to simply save a document image from a site that shows a scanned image. Saving whole web pages can be tricky, but sometimes it is necessary. Many pages rely on information from somewhere else in the web and if your saved page contains a link that it uses to fetch information, you still can find yourself with a link rot problem. When I find a bit of information on a web page, I save it as a pdf file. It preserves what I saw as it was when I found it. Link rot can set in just moments later and I still have the page.

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Topics: Genealogy | 1 Comment »

Finding Your Way Home

By Daniel Hubbard | January 18, 2015

Often in genealogy we are trying to “find our way home” in a rather poetic sense. It is the broad where-are-my-roots sense. “Home” is our ancestors’ names, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. In short “home” is everything that went into making our ancestors who they were and, in turn, might have contributed something into making us who we are.

Sometimes, though, that “home” we want to find is a much more concrete and specific thing. It  really is the house where an ancestor once lived, the shop where an ancestor once sold cloth, or the land a family once farmed. It is a place that can be found on a map and visited. Standing on that spot, seeing that building, or picking up that soil, is also poetic.

A few weeks ago, I was asked about finding the site of a family farm in Sweden. The family owned it in the 1870s. Would it be possible to find the precise location so that it could be visited? Sometimes it is. I had already found the family in parish records for the 1870s and those told me the village. Land reform came to the area in the 1840s. The map produced for the reform gave me the boundaries of the village lands and the boundaries of the land holdings within the village but the parish records gave me no idea which of the many holdings was the one that was “home” in this case. The land reform protocol was over one hundred pages long but never mentioned the farmer I was looking for. It was written before he owned the land. The reform protocol was not going to help.

But the protocol did help. I found my farmer’s probate. It was very long for a Swedish probate record and part of the reason was that this man owned quite a bit of land beyond the land that he farmed himself. Each of his holdings was mentioned in the probate record and in order to describe the land, the name of the previous owner was given. Eventually, the name of that previous owner turned up in the protocol alongside the label used to indicate his land on the map. Overlaying, scaling and rotating the reform map on a modern satellite image gave the exact outline of the land in relation to modern roads. The land is still being farmed. The field boundaries on the map are the same ones that a satellite sees today. “Home” had been found.


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Topics: Methods, Myth and Meaning, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Delete Your Database

By Daniel Hubbard | January 11, 2015

No, not really. Don’t actually delete your database. Think about it instead. Scientists call this a thought experiment. Go ahead, put some effort into it and really imagine it. Imagine that it is gone. Now what?

A few thoughts come to mind.

The first thought might be about backups. If you don’t have one, then you should be imagining the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would be happening if you deleted your database.
If you have a backup, can you imagine using it or are you now realizing that you have no idea what to do with it?

What if we imagine that you have no backup. Do you have copies of the documents you used? Are they organized well enough that you could go though them and reconstruct your database?

What if you didn’t even have copies of your documents? How would you start over? Would you do exactly what you did before? I hope not and here is why.

  1. You’ve learned a few things since you started your genealogy. If you think you haven’t then think some more. There must be a few things that you’d do differently because you know more.
  2. New records are probably available. Do you know what they are? Have you already checked them or have you “finished” with some ancestors and never gone back to learn more about them? If you started over would you look at those records? I hope so. Why not look at them even if you don’t delete your database?
  3. Hopefully, you would make copies of the documents you find this time around. You’d organize them, and keep a record of where you found them. Very few of us have all of that for our earliest work. Maybe you should do those things for those early documents, even if you don’t delete your database.
  4. This time you’ll back up your data. Right?
  5. You’ll see things that you haven’t seen before, even if the information is exactly the same. You should write those things down, and you don’t need to delete your database to do that either ,but maybe it helps to imagine it.
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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part C

By Daniel Hubbard | January 4, 2015

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for ancestor, with whom you’re engrossed.

B is for boundaries, which they crossed and crossed and crossed.

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

C is for Citation

“C” could be for “citation,” the thing that leads you back to the source of your information. Genealogy that contains information but no citations is like a tree without roots. It might be a very nice looking tree, but it will fall over. Roots keep trees standing. Statements like, “this is supported by page 17 of volume 2 of town records, it reads…”

“C” could be for “crime,” something that gets at least some ancestors into court documents (another “c” word), newspapers and those secret stories that great aunt Gertrude used to whisper when she was in a trusting mood. It certainly requires a bit of distance between you and the discovered crime for it to feel like an unadulterated genealogical bonanza. How many years, generations and branchings of your tree depends on you and the crime.

“C” could be for “cemetery,” a place where our records actually are carved in stone, though that doesn’t make them any more accurate than the standard paper kind.

“C” could be for “calendar,” the researcher’s map of time, and early January is a fine time to think about calendars. We sometimes forget that there have been multiple calendars. Beware using the wrong map when you explore the past.

“C” could be for “coincidence,” one of my favorite words in a genealogical context. Who would have believed that there were two boatswains named Benjamin Blasphemer in Baytown? Yet with enough genealogists looking for enough ancestors, truly bizarre coincidences must to turn up. The simplest hypothesis may be that there was only one Benjamin Blasphemer, boatswain, (presumably swearing like a sailor) in Baytown but sometimes when we dig deep enough, it becomes clear that the simplest hypothesis doesn’t work.

Those are all fine words, but, given that in genealogy we are interested in all ancestors, not just the ones who owned land or went to a church that kept records, “c” must also be for “census,” which tried to record absolutely everyone.


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Topics: Genealogy | 2 Comments »

The Christmas Truce

By Daniel Hubbard | December 28, 2014

Christmas_Truce_1914There has been a bit in the news lately about what happened on the Western Front 100 years ago. That one front alone would eventually cost 12.5 million casualties, but The Great War was only a few months old in December of 1914, and, at least from the soldiers point of view, it wasn’t clear that the carnage needed to continue. That Christmas along the front, the shooting stopped in many places. Lit Christmas trees began to appear in the German tranches. Soldiers on both side began to sing carols. They listened to the music from the other side of no-man’s-land then sang in response. In some places they started to leave their trenches and walk toward the opposite lines—with some hesitation at first, then in larger and larger numbers. It is hard to imagine the level of trust required to get up out of the trenches and walk unarmed toward the machine guns. They shook hands, exchanged gifts and perhaps even played soccer (according to a recent lecture that was podcast by the UK National Archives, there is no evidence for actual games, but found it likely that German and English troops managed to kick a ball around at various places along the lines.)

After hearing the truce discussed in the media, I was reminded of how personal the past can be when my wife asked me to edit a blog post she was writing. I had forgotten that her grandfather was a witness to the Christmas Truce. One of those Christmas trees along the Western Front was his. You should read her post Christmas 1914. The past truly is filled with personal connections.

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By Daniel Hubbard | December 21, 2014

Record keepers have always had a specific problem—names often aren’t enough. We tend to think of a name as the same as, or at least a label for, an identity. Clerks, ministers, sextons and anyone else whose job included keeping track of people knew differently. A census enumerator did not care that there were ten men with the same name in the same town. Those names were simply recorded and that was that. The information that we use to tell them apart now was simply recorded because it was supposed to be recorded. What about those people who created records that needed to be linked to a single person accurately? What extra information did they record? As genealogists we need to pay attention to the trails of breadcrumbs that those clerks left for themselves so that they could navigate through the forests of Smiths, Joneses and Andersons that they inhabited.

Two Names Wasn’t Enough

A man who appears in a set of records, sometimes with his middle initial and sometimes without, might be two different men. It might just be the clerk’s way of telling the two apart. The first man got recorded without a middle initial when there was no need to use more than his first and last names to label him as the man who was involved. Only later was there a problem when another man of the same name moved into the area or came of legal age. That second man’s middle initial was dropped into the record as the all important breadcrumb.

Generations and Geography

I’ve been researching a man with a locally common name. Sometimes the name appears followed by “Jr,” sometimes by “Sr,” and sometimes the name is unaccompanied. How many men do I have? It could be two, but it could be three if it is significant that the name often appears without a “Jr” or “Sr.” It actually looks like the correct number is four. There were two men identified with the generational titles and two others who were kept apart by using places. One “John of the mill” and the other “John of the bridge” can be found in the records. In other records these same men were identified as “John son of George” and “John of the bridge.” That last one, “John of the bridge,” seems to be the same man who was once identified as “John son of John.” Now we’ve reached a new type, relational breadcrumbs, and a new problem, crisscrossing systems of breadcrumbs. Different clerks identified these men in different ways and the conversion between them must be found if we are to make sense of it.

Marriage, Work and Birth

Marital status can be subtly used as a breadcrumb. I’ve also seen a record in which a woman’s name was sometimes preceded by Mrs. and other times by Miss. The author of the record realized that the difference between the two women with the same name could be implied by always specifying whether the person being mentioned was married or not—another breadcrumb.

Reading about “Robert Jones the cobbler” when others in the records are listed without occupations might be a clue that the clerk thought he might need that occupational breadcrumb to tell him apart from another Robert Jones. If that was the case, one needs to be wary of other Robert Joneses that might turn up and cause confusion.

Some cultures had very specific problems. In Scandinavia, where nearly everyone was identified by their own given name and their father’s given name, there was a clear danger of confusing one Lars Andersson for another. Names with all the specificity of “William son of John” were nowhere near specific enough, even in a small village or a sparsely populated swathe of countryside. Names in the records needed to be accompanied by birth dates and birth places. At first glance it seems wonderful that the extra effort was made to record all that information every time a record was made, then one realizes that it was 100% necessary, and, without it, the ministers who made those records would have had no idea who was who within a year or two. That birth information made vital trails of breadcrumbs through the records.

Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs may have disappeared before they could use it, but those clerical breadcrumbs are still there to be followed. They give us clues to the problems the clerks knew about and were trying to avoid, and they give us a at least a tenuous trail of identity to follow as we research.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part B

By Daniel Hubbard | December 14, 2014

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book with one letter per page that starts out—

A is for ant, watch it scurry.

B is for bunny, soft and furry.

Oddly enough, it got me thinking about what an alphabet book for genealogists might look like. I’ve already taken a stab at “A.” So, for genealogists what might “B” be for?

B is for Boundary

“B” could be for “boundary,” the division between one area and another. People tend to think of them as static and “set in stone” but they are created, moved and erased over time. The boundaries in which your ancestors lived may be long gone and the records that were created within those archaic boundaries may be in unexpected places.

“B” could be for “bounty land,” given to former soldiers as a reward for their service. If an ancestor was awarded bounty land, that award might have launched him and his family on a long migration.

“B” might be for “Black’s Law Dictionary,” early editions are very handy for understanding obscure wording in old documents.

“B” could stand for “bond,” a a document that might be related to many events, marriage and the assumption of guardianship, for example.

“B” might be for “birth,” “baptism,” or “burial” records of those three events are some of the most important in genealogy.

Those are all fine words, but, given how genealogists are always searching for evidence of relationships, a genealogists’ alphabet has to have “b is for brother.”


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Meaning and Intent

By Daniel Hubbard | December 7, 2014

Genealogists deal with information—gathering, analyzing, transmitting and preserving. Often that information isn’t in an easy to use form. Maybe it’s in a foreign language written in Gothic script. The ink has faded. The words are abbreviated and just for fun let’s say it uses an outdated calendar and archaic place names. The meaning you give to that document will depend on many things.


How are you connected to the document? Is it a will that lists your ancestor as an heir or a witness? Is the date on the document later than any other evidence that you have about that ancestor? Then a meaning you can assign to it, is that your ancestor’s death date was after the date on the will. You can also conclude that your ancestor knew the author of the will. If your ancestor was the author of the will your connection will be very different. Your ancestor died between the date of writing and the date of probate. You might read about many people who knew your ancestor and get at least some idea of your ancestors possessions. The meaning you give to a document depends on how it fits into your research.


The meaning you assign to a document depends on what you know or what you think you know. Maybe you understand how the document connects to your ancestor but only later do you manage to read a particularly difficult passage, or learn where a certain place was, or that another person mentioned in the document was a relative. Suddenly the meaning you assign that document can change dramatically. What the document means to you depends on what you know.


The meaning you give to a document will also depend on your abilities. Can you read the language well enough to do more than pulling out what looks like a birth date? Are you able to interpret a document’s archaic language? Even if the answers to those questions are both “yes” right now, were they “yes” when you decided what the document means or have things changed. Would you be able to assign new meaning now with some improved ability?


Normally we don’t think about a document’s meaning changing. The document was created with a specific intent and that can’t change after its creation. We assume that the intent is the same as the meaning but the intent is only what the document meant to the person who created it at the time it was created. What that document means to us, different people at different times and in different places, is, not surprisingly, different. If we stick to only drawing conclusions from a document that match the original intent, then we may be missing some very important things.

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The Mind’s Eye

By Daniel Hubbard | December 1, 2014

My family and I took a trip over the long Thanksgiving weekend to visit friends. Nothing unusual about that. As  often happens when we travel somewhere, I realized that we have a family connection to the area. The connection was made by a family that I seem to be following. We’ve visited them in Illinois, in Wisconsin, and in Minnesota. Now it was Missouri’s turn.

The Missouri River from the site of Fort Belle Fontaine

The Missouri River from the site of Fort Belle Fontaine, but it isn’t what it seems.

In 1819 a pair of my great-great-great-grandparents, Daniel and Catherine, spent a month near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers at Fort Belle Fontaine. They were part of the Yellowstone Expedition and the weeks that they spent at Belle Fontaine were filled with frustration as they waited to be able to retrace the route Lewis and Clark had taken a decade and a half earlier. To make matters worse, Catherine was nearing the end of her first pregnancy and the delay in their departure was due to the failure of their transports to arrive. At eight months pregnant, she would have to join the soldiers on the march, not floating on the river.

Given the chance to see the place where they had spent July of 1819, I had to see it. Yet I have to ask if I have seen it. I stood high on the bluff that overlooks the Missouri but the massive stone structures, which still stand on the spot, were built in the 1930s not the 1810s. Of course, I could look out over the river that they saw and that defined their route. Yet I couldn’t really do that either. A sign at the spot where the fort had once stood explained that the river had shifted over the last two centuries and had been much further away in the early 1800s. The bluff and the flood plain below were roughly what they had been but the river itself was not the sight they had once seen.

I love to go on pilgrimages to the places where my ancestors had once been. There is something moving about standing in those spots. In a very real way it can be helpful to see the places that they once saw. It helps in understanding them. Sometimes the best we can do is to imagine those places, but we get the chance to correct our mind’s eye with our actual eyes when we visit their places. Nevertheless, it strikes me over and over that though we can travel to the place, we can’t travel to the time without at least some help from our mind’s eye. While standing on that bluff, I had to imagine different buildings overlooking a different river. I had to imagine the noise and the smells of hundreds of soldiers, some of them “locals” in the garrison and some who had just traveled over a thousand miles and who had many hundred’s more to go. I had to remember what my research has told me about that place in their time. I had to be both there and somewhere else.

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