By Daniel Hubbard | December 24, 2013
Every year my family gets questions about how we celebrate Christmas. People realize that I am American but that our family is somehow Swedish. It is a good question. Different cultures celebrate holidays in their own ways. The main Christmas celebration might be the day before. It might be on the day. Some celebrations carry on for several days. In other cases, associated holidays are important. Holidays like St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands, or Saint Lucia’s Day in Sweden. The Sundays of Advent can have varying importance and Epiphany might be a day of gift giving.
Those of us with Puritan ancestors ought to be keenly aware that holiday traditions change with time as well as place. In Puritan New England and Cromwellian England, Christmas celebrations were banned. Christmas was “Popish” and lacked a Biblical basis—no instruction to celebrate it and no information about when it actually occurred. To them it reeked of a pagan solstice festival. I was recently reading Massachusetts Court records dated December 25. It was just another day for them. We should never expect our ancestors to see things the way that we do.
As I rush back to preparing for our tricultural Christmas (American, Swedish and German), I thought I would rerun a parody I wrote for a blog post two years ago-
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was noisy, except my clicking mouse,
The descendants were nestled, all snug in their beds,
But I was still searching for great-Uncle Ned,
And a census with Grandma and Great-Grand-pap,
Who just settled down at this spot on the map,
When suddenly arose some noises exterior,
I swiveled in my chair to free my posterior,
Away to the window, I made a mad dash,
And gazed out on the scene of a quite festive crash,
A tangle of decorations surround a miniature sleigh,
Santa flew low over a Yuletide display,
Reindeer and camels and snowmen all mingled,
I knew in a moment that I’d soon be Kris Kringled,
They struggled to pull all the lights they were trailing,
And even the dead heard his most fearful wailing;
“On Probate, on Will Book, On Baptismal Ledger,
On Census, on Plat Map, On Microfilm Reader!”
He entered extra quickly ’cause I’ve shortened this poem,
And he bore in his hands one enormous tome,
A rub of his eye and a shake of his head,
Soon gave me to know genealogists should be in bed;
He spoke not a word but went straight to my work,
Found all my relations then turned with a jerk,
And leaving the curser beside great-grandpa Morse,
Gave me some papers, each a primary source,
He sprang to his team, I yanked the mess from his sleigh,
So he managed to lift off before it was day,
And I heard his great joy at a sleigh minus fetters,
“Next year your getting all Uncle Ned’s letters!”
By Daniel Hubbard | December 15, 2013
Sources give us information. That information is the same no matter who looks at it. A researcher might miss something but that missed information is there whether we see it or not. Other times information only becomes meaningful when placed in context. The source has the information but the knowledge needed to interpret it needs to be found elsewhere. The researcher starts to leave their own imprint upon the information by building up that context.
The researcher also imposes different uses on the source. In a way, there is nothing unusual about that. The same record can be put to many different uses outside of genealogy. A birth certificate can be used to prove the right to an inheritance (a relationship), prove that one is old enough to drive (birth date) or demonstrate one’s right to a citizenship (birth place or parentage).
In genealogy, the researcher may impose something else upon a source—a direction. Does a birth record prove the identity of the child or of the parents? The way we use a source tends to have a direction that is not implicit in the source itself. We might record that birth with the parents if it is needed as part of the proof of their identities or it can be directed the other way and indicate the identity of a child.
When we use a source to make a connection, we anchor part of the source in what we already know. Enough information matches that we can be reasonably sure of how the source fits with our previous research. Sometimes everything will fit and the source serves to reenforce what we already knew. Other times facets of the source may point beyond. They might point to a parent, child, spouse or college that was unknown. They might point to an occupation, a place or a time. As we learn more, that bit that once pointed beyond is surrounded and the direction of our work disappears. Did we find the wife’s identity by finding his married daughter in her father’s will or did her maiden name in her marriage record lead us to the will? Which path did we take? In which direction did we point our sources?
We tend to think that once we “know” something, the route that we took to get there is irrelevant. If it later turns out that we are not so sure of what we thought we knew, then the route we took to get there might be a good thing to know as we either try to reassure ourselves or to find our error.
Our route can have more subtle effects as well. How we see an ancestor just might depend on the path we took as we learned about him or her. Was our first impression one of shock over a headline splashed in a newspaper or one of pity as we uncovered the events that eventually caused us to look for and find that headline?
The directions we impose upon our sources can matter.
By Daniel Hubbard | December 8, 2013
Every once in a while I hear someone make a comment about how they can only name people along a few generations of their ancestry even if they have researched a dozen generations. I find that there is something mesmerizing or perhaps meditative about turning a family tree over in one’s mind, running through the generations as if they were frames in a film or visualizing the lines of a pedigree as they shoot back in time.
There is an ancient memory technique that goes by the formal name “the method of loci,” memory by locations. The common name for the collection of locations is “memory palace.” I think that is the perfect term. Even without knowing what is meant, the term “memory palace” evokes something. It creates an image and doing that is very appropriate. The whole idea of a memory palace is that memory is enhanced by attaching it to a place that you know well and in your imagination filling that place with striking imagery. It is based on the observation that we remember our way around places very well. Who can’t close their eyes and take a walk around their childhood home as if they were there?
In the days before teleprompters, orators would remember speeches that could go on for hours by imagining a building, then imagining a path that they could walk through that building and then filling separate locations, doorways, hallways and rooms, with memorable images that somehow reminded them of what they wished to say. A roman orator who wished to remember to discuss public works, first talking about improvements to the water supply and then mentioning harbor repairs might include a broken aqueduct which repeatedly disgorges a ship that crashes into a pier in his memory palace. The stranger the imagery the easier it is to remember things. As our ancient orator mentally walked from location to location, each bizarre sight would remind him of the next topic in his speech.
I have my own little ancestral memory palace. It is filled with bizarre representations of surnames and strange symbols for occupations. If only I had a great-grandma Polly who had some questionable character traits, I could place a parrot riding a wildly bucking black sheep in one room of my memory palace.
Some rooms might be like little museums, filled with reminders about a certain ancestor. If you have no trouble remembering that an ancestor was a pioneer and later worked on a canal, you might simply place a log cabin and a canal boat in his room. If you have a harder time remembering his involvement with canals, place him on top of a surfboard sized canal boat and have him catch a wave.
The locations are a tougher problem when constructing a genealogical memory palace than the contents. The standard memory palace is a familiar building through which the memorizer can plot a single unique path and place the reminders that need to be encountered one after the other as they walk through. What building branches over and over so that every hallway leads to two more? I’m certainly not familiar with one. A genealogist’s memory palace, not just the objects in it, needs to be constructed in the mind because no such physical building could exist. My own genealogical memory palace is filled with branching corridors, the splits marked odd bits of imagination that represent new surnames and the rooms off to the side are each filled with reminders of a single ancestor.
Of course this isn’t necessary. I carry my genealogy in my pocket and can pull up any ancestor with a few taps. There is, though, something sublime about having those corridors of memory in my mind where I can get the feeling of traveling through time. It is, I think, a form of meditation.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 1, 2013
Last week I wrote a bit about Mayflower passenger George Soule. One thing that I mentioned was that he wrote a will that names his children. He did his genealogical duty. What I didn’t mention was a very interesting detail of his probate.
George gave, or had already given, something to each of his surviving children—not unusual. He left the bulk of his estate to his eldest son—not unusual. He named his eldest son to be the executor of his estate—also not unusual. Then something changed.
He wrote that he had already given his younger sons all of his lands in Dartmouth and a pair of daughters had received his lands in Middleberry. He began to give away the rest of his estate naming two other daughters who were to receive 12 pence each. That left eldest son John as the last sibling to be mentioned. He and his family were thanked for their care and the tenderness and love that they had shown George during the latter’s decline. John’s bequest was simple. He was to receive “all the Remainder of my housing and lands.” It was to be a very significant amount. Of George’s significant estate, John would receive everything except for twenty-four pence that would go to two of his sisters. John was to be his father’s executor as well. At least that is what is contained in George’s will of August 11, 1677.
By September 20 something had happened. It must have been dramatic. George is silent about the cause but on that date he added a codicil to his will. It is short and to the point. John and his family, who had been heralded for their loving aid to his father just under six weeks earlier, were suddenly seen very differently—
If my son John Soule above named or his heires or Assignes of any of them shall att any time Disturbe my Daughter Patience or her heires or Assignes or any of them in peaceable Posession or Injoyment of the lands I have Given her…then my Gift to my son John Soule shall be voyd and that then my will is that my Daughter Patience shall have all my lands in Duxburrey And shee shalbe my sole executrix…
I wonder. What was it that caused George to suddenly change his attitude toward his son’s family? I’d like to be able to look back in time and see the argument or learn of the discovery that gave a dying man the jolt that made him add that codicil. As with many a genealogical riddle, I can see a hundred different versions of the story but may never know the one hundred and first version that contains the truth. What would cause him to write that if his son or practically anyone associated with his son should “disturb” his daughter or her family then John would get nothing and his sister, who had already received land, would inherit everything else as well? John would also suffer what could only have been seen in the seventeenth century as the humiliation of being displaced as executor by his sister. The eldest son ousted in favor of the youngest daughter was not something that would have been lost on John or on Plymouth society as a whole. For whatever reason, his father drew a line and warned his son that if he or anyone in his family crossed it, economic retaliation and social disgrace would follow.
By the following February, George was dead.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 24, 2013
It is that time of year when children’s thoughts veer from pumpkins to Pilgrims to prancing hooves in rapid succession. Genealogical research won’t put a jack-o-lantern or a flying reindeer into their family trees but what about a Pilgrim? Through a child’s eyes, the level of reality is about the same and, even to many adults, the passengers on the Mayflower are just some half-remembered residents of that foggy place known as grade school history class.
Perhaps the most profound part of family history is the discovery of our own personal links to the past—pulling at least some of the sweep of the human experience out of the history books and claiming it for one’s own. Those links might be to nearly nameless men and women or to the famous and infamous. The point is that the links are there waiting to be found. They might be links to people very similar to ourselves or people so alien that it is almost hard to realize that we have just laid claim them.
…What do Mayflowers Bring?
As part of a large project, I’ve been researching a colonial family from Connecticut. A few weeks ago, I traced the family back to Plymouth County, Massachusetts in the late 1690s. A decade earlier that county and all the rest of New England had been put together into the “Dominion of New England.” The Dominion was unpopular and when the the English overthrew James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Dominion government was quickly overthrown as well. Massachusetts Bay Colony reverted to its previous colonial charter but Plymouth Colony had never had a charter. In London, the new monarchs, William and Mary, decided to merge the two into a single colony and the colony of the Pilgrims ceased to exist as a separate political entity and Plymouth County joined Massachusetts.
As I worked back to those earlier times, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, became Plymouth Colony and the population dwindled until only a few people from a few ships were living there. I’ve researched in Plymouth Colony’s records before but never ended with a Mayflower passenger. Now Halloween had passed and so had the first week of November. If you are a little kid, pumpkin season was over and Pilgrim season was beginning. And this time there are some little kids in the family who might turn out to be “part Pilgrim.” Once reindeer season begins, that news wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.
So I decided that I had to try to find if the trail ended with a Pilgrim before the magic moment had passed. Luckily George Soule was kind to me. He deeded land to his children and listed them in his will even if their births were not recorded. When the colony’s land was divided among the colonists for the first time in 1623, the receivers of the land were listed according to the ship upon which they had arrived and George Soule is listed under the Mayflower. The original Mayflower Compact no longer exists and none of the the early transcriptions includes the list of signatories but the list was copied and published in 1669. On that list is the name George Soule. I got the privilege of sending a quick email with the findings before Thanksgiving, before the climax of “Pilgrim Season,” when it might make it a little bit more exciting to be a little kid eating turkey on a Thursday in November. Sometimes it is cool to be a genealogist.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 17, 2013
Yesterday was the second annual “Exploring Your Swedish Roots” at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. I was one of the researchers who helped people with their Swedish research problems. I always enjoy events like this. In a way it was almost an athletic event. Every half hour, for five hours, a new research problem to try to get a handle on, a new set of names and dates and relationships with new sets of evidence as input and new clues to tease out of what is already known. When an event like that is over the feeling is very similar to the one I remember having after a track meet—a mixture of exhaustion and joy.
One of the most enjoyable things is working with people with different levels of experience and so many different types of problems. Today one visitor had been researching for years, so he knew quite a bit about his ancestry but there was a name that appeared in his family seemingly out of nowhere and a story that had been passed down about a soldier in the family. Swedish soldiers were issued new names to go with their uniforms. The alternative would be a company of men made up of 50% Svenssons, 30% Larssons and the remainder made up of a mixture of Perssons and Olofssons. Imagine that chaos that would ensue when an officer bellowed “Svensson come here.” So Swedish soldiers got new, unique names when they joined the army. A new name just appearing in the family and a family story of a soldier. Could their be a connection? Not this time, both men turned out to be mill workers. There may be something to the story but it wasn’t to be found among them.
Someone else I helped was looking for the origins of her Swedish grandfather. I found him but needed to also explain that he was born out of wedlock. When I first started researching that was still a discovery which was not always accepted or even to be discussed. It was often actively denied despite the evidence. I guess because of that I still have a moment of hesitation when I need to bring it up even if it is never a problem anymore. In this case the response was, “Well, that confirms the old family rumors. Great!” I even found that he had taken his maternal grandfather’s name and used it as a surname when he emigrated. There will always be more mysteries but at least that one was solved.
The last bit of research was in many ways the most fun. She was just starting out and only had some notes jotted down from research she had been helped with just a few minutes before. We got both Swedish branches of her family back a generation without too much trouble. She was ecstatic. Her reaction reminded me of the joy that can come with making those first discoveries when even the possibility that those ancestors can be found is a revelation and finding a few families can double or triple a family tree. Suddenly you have names, dates and occupations. You have places that you can dream of visiting. You have a personal past.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 11, 2013
Just about every year at this time, I write something about the First World War. The anniversary of the end of that horror is the reason that Veterans Day falls on the 11th of November.
Last year, the last living veteran of the war died. Next year, July 28 will bring the one hundredth anniversary of the day in 1914 when the war began. After the assassination of their heir to the throne, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. It was done knowing that Germany would lend support if needed. That date is years before the United States became involved but within days of that first declaration, Europe was at war.
The reason that the Austrians wanted guarantees of German support was Serbia’s sizable main ally, Russia. The army of the Russian Empire began to mobilize two days after the Austrian declaration. The Germans felt that their survival hinged on making sure that they did not fight a war simultaneously both in the west and in the east. They would go on the offensive and win the war in the west before the Russian Army was fully ready. On August 4, Germany invaded Belgium as way of getting its army into France as quickly as possible. It was believed by the German high command that the army had 950 hours to defeat France before they would be forced to turn it around to face east. The clock had begun to tick the moment the Russian army began to mobilize. As the clock ticked out the last of those 950 hours, the French and British stopped the German advance within artillery range of Paris. The 950 hours had run out. Four years later the clock was still ticking its last furious ticks and the German’s own prediction, defeat France in 950 hours or be defeated, was mere weeks from coming true.
My own relationship to the Western Front changed years ago. I’ve mentioned before that my wife’s grandfather had been in the trenches of the Western Front but on the German side. He started to keep a diary even before the war. He continued to keep it during his months of fighting. He continued after he was badly wounded and left the fighting for good. Sometime next year part of those diaries that her grandfather kept will be published as a part of a graphic novel. It will be printed in German and in French in remembrance of the one hundredth anniversary of those years that hollowed out the collective soul of a generation.
I wonder, what will it feel like to see all those drawings that will depict a piece of the history of my family, drawn as they will be with the intent of capturing a piece, not of my family’s history, but of the history of a continent?Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | November 3, 2013
One of the tricky things to deal with in any research is evidence that leads you astray. There are some things in genealogy to avoid some such problems. We try to understand how records are created and how imperfections might sneak in.
The misinformed and distraught informant used to create a death certificate might not know the names of her departed husbands parents but think that she does, or might be so upset that he gives the wrong date of birth for his wife, even though they had observed the correct birthday for many years. The child that is left off the will might have been alive and well and on good terms with his father but has already received all that was due to him, so he goes unmentioned. The census enumerator might have found no one home and simply talked to a neighbor to get the best information that he could. These are all things that can happen and that we simply need to consider as we think about how trustworthy any piece of evidence actually is.
This week I ran into too many examples of closely a related problem. The person who created the record or cataloged it simply made some sort of mistake. Not a slip of memory. Not giving us information in a way that might seem odd today and not choosing an informant that was less qualified than one would hope. Those are categories of problems that we can anticipate depending on the type of record. These were more random. That makes them harder to anticipate but not so difficult to deal with if we keep our eyes open.
Bump 1 Some bumps in the road the record travels are obvious enough. They come with big, yellow, firmly-planted warning signs. I ran into a database of information extracted from a set of annually produced city directories. Very nice. One gets a name, an address, an occupation and of course since the directories were produced annually you get the year as well. Except in this case. Most of the entries had years but the one that was most crucial to me did not. Annual directories come with years of publication often right in their titles but somehow the information was lost.
Bump 2 Missing information is one thing but wrong is another. I found a widow that I was tracing in an 1894 directory. That was quite a coup because she had supposedly died by 1886. This time though, there were proper pages to examine. The book was cataloged as the 1894 directory, but if so, it was an amazing feat of prognostication because the publication date on the title page was 1884.* I think that has to be one of the downsides of digitized books–you don’t see the cover, you just jump right to the place your search leads you, trusting that you are actually in the book you think you are in, trusting that nothing like this example of time travel has occurred. Remember to check that digitized title page.
Bump 3 A microfilm that I ordered to check if the child I was looking for might have been baptized in the parish covered by the film also had a bit of time travel to it. Luckily, I was interested in the baptisms first. I found what I wanted and I was by then familiar with the span of years covered. Then I decided to check the marriages. If I had been interested in the marriages first, I might not have noticed that baptisms and burials ran to much later dates than the marriages. Odd…and wrong. The marriages were supposed to run only to the 1820s. I stopped checking when I got well past 1848, when the baptism occurred. At least two extra decades of marriages were there beyond what the label claimed.
Bump 4 I was looking for a woman on a passenger list. I had the approximate year, I had her birth year but no luck. I tried various combinations of things in the search that I was performing. Some more research turned up her husband’s given name. Bingo, found him right away. She was listed right below him. He was 32. She was 30, just like I would have predicted. Hmm… The index had her as 80. Well, that is too bad but it is understandable, the 30 did look something like 80. What was odd was that in the original, she was listed without a surname, just a blank because it was understood that her name was the same as her husband’s. Hmm… the index has her husband’s surname correct but hers was totally mangled. I still wonder what the exact sequence of events was that led to her nonexistent name being misinterpreted. Presumably, his was once mangled as well but it certainly is not what one would expect.
Bump 5 Finally, pity the poor clerks. They are the road crews of our research—we all know how vital their jobs are but no one likes it when we have things to do and places to go and they have the nerve to get in our way while they work to make our lives easier. They hold up “slow” signs. They send us on detours. They set out those “bump” warning signs. I was very thankful earlier in the week to find that a clerk had made an entry in a marriage register that proved something important to what I was researching. If I had been researching the couple listed on the line above and not noticed “my” line, I would have made a mistake. On the left hand page, the information on the two lines was different, as it should be for different marriages. The information on the right hand page was identical. The same information had been copied into the register twice but only on that page where it was less noticeable. I know from other evidence that my line was not filled with the random information that one would expect from such a mistake. On close inspection, the line above had enough oddities within in it that only some strange and presumably illegal marriage practices could have produced it.
Sometimes when careening down the information superhighway’s genealogy lane, it can be good to take the off-ramp, get on the frontage road, slow down and take in one’s surroundings. They are often not what they are supposed to be. You might even want to stop and check both the oil and the title page.
* Imagine it is 1884 and you receive you shiny, new 1894 city directory and crack it open to find yourself or your wife listed as “widow of…” Not a good day.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | October 27, 2013
I sometimes wonder if things that people know about their past when growing up or even the way that they are named influences them later in life. I know that being named for ancestors and hearing stories about them played a role in my becoming a genealogist so it must happen to other people as well. When I was a kid I listened to a DJ on the radio with an interesting name. You’d think that a DJ that had “Records” in his name was just using a nickname but I remember him explaining once that actually, his middle name really was “Records” and yes, it did have some influence on his becoming a DJ. I also think I have a vague memory of my grandmother talking about a fellow doctor by the name of Bonebreak, or some such name. That could always be a coincidence or that name could have provided a gentle push toward an interest in medicine.
A while back, the Swedish-American Museum in Chicago asked me for a little quick research into the ancestry of Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11′s lunar module pilot and the second person to walk upon the moon. He is part Swedish and they were planning an addition to their children’s museum dedicated to him. They wanted to make sure that they had his ancestry correct. For an astronaut, his ancestry is rather interesting if you think that little things we know about our past might give us gentle pushes in certain directions. You see, his mother’s maiden name was “Moon.”
It was his father’s side of the family that was Swedish, so that is what I investigated. I traced his grandfather back to Sweden. I traced him back twice actually, because he came to the U.S., returned to Sweden and then made the crossing again with his family. It was where I found him the year that he left for America the first time that was surprising. In 1886 Karl Johan Aldrin lived at “Stjernsfors Bruk.” Loosely translated that is “The mill at Star’s Rapids.” Hmm…
The Swedish-American Museum’s Buzz Aldrin exhibit opens this weekend and I’m proud to have made my little genealogical contribution.Twitter It!
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!
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