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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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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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Questions: Personal and Universal

By Daniel Hubbard | November 23, 2014

Last week I wrote about the Swedish genealogy event where I was one of the researchers. I’ve also been making a lot of presentations lately and one of the best things about being a speaker is talking with people individually before and after presenting for the group. This week I thought I would let some of those people and others that I’ve spoken with “do the talking.”

“My father was adopted. How can I find his biological family?”

“My grandmother told all kinds of stories. I wish I knew if they were true…”

“My mother collected all this family stuff. I wasn’t interested at the time and now I’m slowly trying to understand what it is.”

“Do you read German? I think this might be the baptism of my great-great-grandmother.”

“I think something like what you mentioned happened with my grandfather. There were certain subjects he just never talked about.”

“My grandparents were all immigrants and I’d love to find out where they came from.”

“We always thought that grandma was really straight laced. Then I found this in her hometown newspaper…”

“Can you make out this handwriting? I can’t tell if it is the right family.”

“Do you think what I’ve told you about my great-grandfather is enough to get started?”

“I’ve found these three men in the census. What should I do to try to figure out which one is my ancestor?”

“I’ve hit a brick wall on my mother’s mother’s side. Do you think that this land record is enough to prove the relationship?”

“Do you have a moment? I don’t really like to talk about this but…”

That is just a small sample. The questions and stories become almost a sort of collective poetry, both deeply personal and broadly universal. Some are funny, many are moving, all have meaning. They are the things genealogists ponder and that draw us to family history.

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Genealogical Speed Dating

By Daniel Hubbard | November 16, 2014

Yesterday I provided research help at the annual Exploring Your Swedish Roots day at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. It means changing to a new research topic every half hour. Often a problem gets solved but sometimes, a mystery lingers. It can, perhaps, be visualized as genealogical speed dating.

One mystery was the man who was recorded leaving Sweden at the right time. He had the right name and the right date of birth. Yet he was still being recorded in Sweden a couple years later. I found him returning to his parents’ household from Denmark not long after leaving for America. Progress yes, but the mystery lingers.

Someone else had just learned her great-grandmother’s maiden name. It is a very Swedish name but rather unusual. It could have been the kind of name that leads to progress with minimal starting information but it turned out otherwise. She appeared twice in the U.S. census after marrying. We could not find her before that despite an unusual name an approximate age and even knowing places she might have lived. No records of emigrants from Sweden or immigrants to America matched her. In the census she claimed to be from the place she first lived when she came to America and the few records of her showed that she was aging at 6 or 7 years per decade. We were left wondering what was fact and what was fiction.

Other times, I was rewarded with exclamations like, “Oh my, that’s Aunt Viola, Uncle Karl and Aunt Greta and there’s my grandfather over there! Wait is that his birth date?!?” or “Wow, I didn’t know anything about these people who never left Sweden! This is great.” Sometimes I could even explain that, from the wording and the structure of the record, it was likely that the widow listed at the bottom of the page was great-grandma or that the cluster of people listed at the top of the page were an ancestor’s siblings. Many a speed date found those kinds of matches.

Maybe you can try to speed date some people from your past. You might be able to take a name you’ve never researched and find some matching records and either decide that they might be interesting to get to know or decide that they really aren’t for you. Just remember, when your speed date is over, you’ll need contact information. Save those documents and the citation info. You’ll want to have those if the date was a success.

Speed dating may not be the ideal form for carrying on a long-term relationship but it isn’t meant to be. It is meant as a start. My day of genealogical speed dating isn’t the way that the people with whom I worked should continue their genealogy. They will need to slow down and take notes, record thoughts, cite sources, make entries into databases and file their documents. A successful speed date, genealogical or otherwise, is only the start.


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What Time Was It? Surprise!

By Daniel Hubbard | November 9, 2014

The bombers were enormous. They left their bases in Germany and set their courses for London. As they advanced toward the the British coast by night, operators stood ready at their dishes, waiting to detect their approach and call out the fighters. The early raids proved unstoppable but eventually the British pilots learned to bring the bombers down in balls of flame. The threat faded.

What time was being described in the paragraph above? The Battle of Britain was fought in 1940 but it wasn’t 1940. It wasn’t even World War II.

The period was 1915-1918 and the bombers in question were not even airplanes. They were airships—Zeppelins. As long as two football fields and filled with flammable hydrogen they would seem like sitting ducks. Flying as high as 21,000 feet at speeds almost as great as the airplanes of the day and large enough that bullets made only insignificant holes in them, they made it through anyway.

The dishes that listened at the coast were not radar. That did not appear until World War II. They were “sound mirrors,” parabolic dishes made of concrete. The operators stood in front of them and used a listening horn at the end of a pole to listen for the sound of the approaching engines. Once they found the horn position that made the sound the loudest, the pole pointed to the Zeppelin. It was still too far away to be seen and could not be heard without the mirror but they knew it was coming and could phone the Zeppelin’s bearings to the the nearest airbase.

What is familiar can lead us astray when we don’t realize that history isn’t always what or when we expect. Whenever one researches anything, prepare for surprises!

If you are intrigued by the thought of enormous Zeppelins bombing Britain, you can watch this NOVA documentary.

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