By Daniel Hubbard | August 12, 2012
Well, my little blogiversary party is a week late but when was the last time that everything went according to schedule? Last week, I was focused on what was coming this week—two genealogy board meetings, running a help session at a library and “Genealogy After Hours” at my library down the street. The board meetings don’t make for very good blog topics but the help session just might.
So, for the third time I get to put on my blogging party hat and celebrate just a bit. But first, as is traditional, a short “real” post and I guess since I’ve done it this way twice before, it might pass for tradition.
The help session I did was fascinating. I had a room full of people with time slots and just moved around the room trying to help people. Some had already done a great deal trying to breakdown a brick wall. In a few minutes all I could do was listen to the problem, what they had done and try to see where they might be able to squeeze some more information out of a source or look at something new or even see if the problem ancestor might have bent the truth and caused a search to be too limited.
Other people were self-confessed beginners. They needed to know some basics. One man made some real progress and made an exciting discovery that led to a new mystery. What could be better? Some other people had an odd grab bag of names that seemed to be all the same person but wondered it if could possibly be true. I looked at what they had and told them it was very possible and gave them a few thoughts on getting another record or two.
The most interesting person to help, though, was a twelve-year-old boy. I started when I was a kid so I tried to remember how my aunts once helped me.
He had talked to relatives. Good. He had newspaper clippings. Fine. He had at least one “old” letter. He had a lot of information or did he?
One of the tough things about helping a beginner, especially a child, is to not burst their bubble, or at least do it gently. He told me the letter he had told him that he was descended from a German baron. That wasn’t quite true. It read “aristocracy,” which could mean something below a baron, such as a knight. I tried to give him the idea that these things often get inflated. Just like he read “aristocracy” and imagined “baron,” the letter writer may have been told “upper class” by someone who had been told “wealthy” by someone who had been told “well off” by someone who had been told “successful farmer.” I didn’t go into that detail but reminded him of how things change in a game of telephone. He told me the letter was old so that shouldn’t have happened. I asked, “how old”? Thirty years was the reply, so I asked when this baron would have lived and he thought about 1800. A told him that thirty years might be important if an event had happened thirty five years ago but thirty years out of more than two hundred didn’t really help all that much. He would need to work with original records to get back to his ancestor in 1800.
I hope he continues with genealogy. I hope he got the idea that trustworthy sources were more important than online trees. You don’t need to be a great researcher when you first start off but you do need to improve and maybe even more importantly, he’ll need to learn to deal with disappointment when things he thinks he knows today become things he can’t trust tomorrow. Hopefully he’ll realize that thinking you know names for twenty generations isn’t as important as getting to understand the lives of a few generations that you have proved to be your ancestors. Good luck kid!
I seem to work food into my posts on a regular basis and I do like a good meal. So, this year I thought I’d try to figure out what refreshments might go with a genealogy party. Here is the menu-
Choice of Main Course:
Red Herrings or
By Daniel Hubbard | August 5, 2012
Every genealogist knows, or should know, that keeping track of sources is a must. Each fact should have a source.
There is something hidden in that last statement. It assumes we have a clear idea of what a “fact” is. Do we?
Slicing and Dicing
How small can a fact be? Is someone’s name a fact or is it many facts? I would say that it is many. A typical American for the last few centuries has three parts to their name. We don’t always have a single source that clearly gives all three. If a person is a bit of a mystery and three sources list him as John Public, another lists J. Q. Public, and a newly discovered source has J. Quail Public, what is the man’s full name?
If we assume that all the sources refer to the same person, we might say that his name is John Quail Public but is that really one single fact? Are there five sources for that name? Five sources support the first initial “J.” Three of those support the name “John.” The middle initial “Q” is supported by two sources but only one gives the full middle name of “Quail.” Different sources support different parts of the name. That name isn’t so much one fact as several facts.
Can you trust those sources to the same level? Probably not. Different parts of the name are probably not just supported by different amounts of evidence but by different levels of quality. If you look at the name “John Quail Public” as one fact and think that it is supported by five sources, it may slip your mind, and go undocumented in your records, that the middle name that we might use to tell him apart from all the other John Q. Publics in the area was only supported by one source. If that source is weak as well, we might be in trouble. If a grandson’s memory that his grandfather’s middle name was “Quail” was wrong, so are we. What if we felt confident in our “well supported” name and used it to filter away a few things turned up about John Quince Public? What if Quince was the middle name we should have been targeting?
How well defined is any one fact? Is it a fact that a child was born on August 6, 1781 if there is some evidence that suggests that he was born on the 16th or in 1782? What if there is some weak evidence that implies that the family had a child of that name that died and you just might have the birth of the first but you need the birth information for the second?
What sources do you attach to your “fact”? Perhaps you work only with those that cluster together to support August 6, 1781. You list those sources as all supporting that date. Perhaps, as above, different sources support different parts of the date. Beyond that, what do you do with the sources that imply otherwise? A source that says August 6, 1782 could be said to support August 6 so you could use it but it also casts doubt on 1781. Do you simply refer to it, or do you keep separate track of the support for the month and the day and the ambiguity for the year? Do you keep track of those sources that give a different date, the ones that might correspond to a second child of the same name? Should they be buried in a file or should they be referenced directly from the birth you are trying to understand?
The question becomes, do we think of a fact as an actual value or is it a placeholder for something that we hope to know? Everyone was born, we just don’t know when or where without doing some work. We start out with an empty box in a form or in a database interface. Does there need to be a well supported value there and then only the sources that support that value or do the sources instead belong to the space where we would like to record a value? If the sources belong with the space, then we can attach to that space all the ambiguous references that may or may not be relevant but that should not be forgotten.
That Empty Box
I look at that empty box as two things. It is a place to put the best distillation of the information presented by the sources. The sources that go along with that value are naturally the ones that support it.
The box is also a thing in itself. Many sources can have something to say about what might be entered in that box. All those sources should be connected to that blank whether they agree with the current thinking or not.
Sources tend not to present an amalgam. They say one thing or they say another. Each will present its version of the facts. Each supports something, though perhaps only part of what we could call a “large-scale” fact. That large-scale fact might be a birthdate but a source might give a month of birth and nothing more. In order to really understand the status of a large-scale fact, it is wise to keep track of what sources support what parts of that fact and what sources give alternate possibilities. Some sources will match the large-scale fact in all its glory, others only one or more of its parts and finally, some will contradict the whole large-scale fact or some of its parts. Only a full view of all that complexity will help when another source comes along or a conclusion based on our large-scale fact fails to be true.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 29, 2012
In genealogy we deal with information. Not just any information but information about, and perhaps more importantly, by people. Sometimes people choose to record, sometimes they choose not to record. Sometimes people choose to pass information to the person making the record, sometimes they choose otherwise. Then we choose to look in one place for a record but not in another place. We might find what we want, we might find a false lead and we might find nothing and conclude that there is nothing to be found.
We have to realize that everything that we learn about our ancestors has passed through filters—some of them even filters of our own. That is an important fact. Filters, by definition, change what passes through them. Instead of learning facts A, B, C, and D, only fact B passes through. We don’t learn the other facts and fact B comes through missing some context. That isn’t right or wrong. It isn’t lying. It is the nature of information preservation but it is also something we need to think about. Filters are great if you want a nice cup of coffee. If you want to study coffee grounds, you might appreciate the coffee but it takes some work to learn about the grounds from a latte.
At every stage, there are people who filter. Someone requests the information. Before the event even occurs, there is the decision to record that type of event. Then there is the decision about what to record when the event occurs. In official records, those decisions are usually made long before the event takes place.
After the deciding what to record, someone decides what information to provide, someone filters the information as it is recorded, eventually someone may filter what not to preserve and later, someone filters as they search for it and decide whether or not to use it. Sometimes those roles are separate but often they are mixed.
Some things are considered important to record while most things are not. We generally don’t have trouble with this. We don’t conclude that our ancestors owned nothing but land because only land purchases were officially recorded. We don’t conclude that nothing happened in their lives except for birth, marriage and death because only those events were officially written down. Most of our ancestor’s lives never made it through the official filter. Most things were of no official interest.
The official records that we prefer to use to create the “bones” of our research should be factual. That is why we prefer them. Yet even after certain types of events are deemed interesting enough to record, they must pass through another filter—the “Sgt. Joe Friday” filter—”just the facts ma’am.” Perhaps, I should refine that to “just the relevant facts, ma’am.” There are plenty of facts that weren’t recorded because they weren’t considered truly relevant. A sale of land from a father to a son was usually recorded as if it was just two men with the same surname. On the occasions when that is not the case, when the clerk wrote “James Smith conveys to his eldest son David Smith…”, many a genealogist has wished they could send a thank you card back in time to the clerk who let that bit of information slip through the filter.
Then there is the “filter of the form.” The information needs to be recorded in a specific way and if your information does not fit the form, well, make it fit. The more unusual the situation, the more interesting things are, the less likely the facts are to fit nicely into the blanks on a form. Anyone who has ever lived abroad is soon made to realize that this is a totally unexpected thing for many a designer of forms. I can’t remember how many times a form required me to enter a state of residence from a fixed list of fifty when I wasn’t actually living in America. Where was the town Stockholm-Sweden in the state of Illinois? It only existed on my forms. What did our ancestors and clerks do when information simply didn’t fit the form? One option is to filter until it fit.
Filtering for Extremes
Other sorts of records aren’t usually strictly filtered long before the events occur. Diarists, biographers, letter writers and newspaper editors have very different filters from the clerk at the courthouse but they still filter.
There might be other filters in play before the scribe puts pen to paper. The propriety filter can leave out a child’s birthday when a problematic comparison to a marriage date might otherwise be made. It would be a strange obituary that did not pass through this filter. Rarely would one speak ill of the dead in such a public way, even if that meant leaving out some facts. County histories are famous for this filter. Sometimes things seem nicer if there are things that don’t pass through the filter.
Sometimes there is a sensationalism filter at work. Newspaper articles might very well leave out a mitigating circumstance if a story would tend to grab more readers interest without it. A gossipy diarist or letter writer might make things sound far worse or weird than they really were by leaving out the normal and run of the mill. Once written down, the sensational often passes easily through any filters relating to preservation.
Even a headstone might pass through a filter. My great-grandmother is buried near my grandfather and the surname is the same so even a casual observer conclude that they were probably family and possibly mother and son. That would all be correct but it only works that way because my great-grandmother’s headstone is, in a sense, wrong. She had remarried and her surname was different when she died. The surname on her stone passed through a filter that required things to make obvious sense even when they, in principle, shouldn’t. The surname that matched her children passed through the filter, the surname that followed after got stuck among the coffee grounds. That has certainly happened in other cases as well. What gets preserved passes through a simplicity filter. It leads in roughly the right direction but it cuts some corners in doing so. It tries to make sense without all the messy details required of the full story.
People recorded the version they wanted recorded if they possibly could. Usually people are honest but omissions were made. We need to try our best to sort them out.
Some filters were simply cultural convention with no deep meaning unless we misunderstand the filter and mistakenly give it meaning that isn’t there. A father did not mention a son in his will. Were they estranged? Had the son died? Was the son a modern mistake who had never actually existed? Maybe, but maybe the son had already received his share an the father simply had no need to mention him. The custom often worked that way.
This is a filter that has as much to do with our culture as it does with theirs. Do you filter away what looks like a second living son because he has the same name as the first. Don’t do it if you are researching among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That would reflect our culture not theirs.
When researching, we need to think about what filters the data might have passed through. What might those filters mean for what lies behind what we read? What allowances do we need to make? Can we recognized what might have been removed? We also need to understand our own filters. Some we can eliminate some, like where we choose to to search, we can only consider, reduce and control.
By Daniel Hubbard | July 22, 2012
“…as daylight began to dawn…a bloodcurdling yell of a large band…on ponies and firing at everyone that showed his head…”
Poring over newspapers sometimes turns up something exciting. In this case, the news was not exactly fresh. It was not news. It was a recollection of something that had happened over thirty years before. It was related by a man who wasn’t even there. He had arrived in the area a year after the events occurred. Yet as things go, he was probably not a bad person to pass on the information. A buffalo hunt had ended in a massacre. There was only one survivor. Only one witness could tell the original tale. Every retelling had to be based on his word alone. My storyteller heard it from the horse’s mouth. He also had his own reasons to learn the story.
His father had reached the area by the time the hunt took place. Had the storyteller’s father not fallen ill, he would have packed up his rifle and been among the dead. A son, one would think, remembers that kind of story, heard as an adult and told when it was still fresh. I’ve read other things by this storyteller and he did not sugarcoat his stories. He seems have had no problem recording human folly, even when it was his own. As I tried to pull out the individual facts from the story—perhaps a better word would be “assertions”—I started to think I’d seen this before.
Looking through my files, I discovered that I had seen it. Quite awhile ago, it became one of those pieces of historical background that gets saved “just in case” as one works on a genealogy. Now I had a reason to look more closely at it. The county history that preserved the story said nothing of the connection to the family I am researching. There is no reason that it should. After all, the connection is a man who did not go. Nevertheless, it told the same story of the hunt gone wrong.
Yet, it wasn’t the same story. That is a quite interesting thing. One man survived. One man saw what happened and “lived to tell the tale.” Aside from certain externally verifiable details, like the date the group left, the date they were attacked and the details of the bodies found, all that was known had to come from that one man. Yet two similar but different stories sit on my desk. A guarantee of one and only one original source and two printed results ought to make for an interesting comparison. They might just be able to tell us something about how information like this is preserved.
Looking Back in Time
I’ve found two brief mentions of this story elsewhere in earlier histories. They are similar on some points. Unfortunately, the similarity in these histories can’t be taken as evidence that they are correct. Once published, they are likely to have influenced what came later. One certainly did because the author was one of the sources cited by the county history that I had copied. None of them identify their source for the main events. None of them says that he or she talked to the survivor or the survivor’s relatives, for example. There are other things that make me wonder. Some points seem altered to fit the authors needs.
I’ve made myself a spreadsheet to compare the tellings point by point. I’ve tried to think about what each said about the different things that happened, how consistent they are internally and with the other tellings and how the person doing the telling might have known about what they were describing.
The general outline of the story that all four tellings agree upon is that a group of hunters went after buffalo. The hunt was a success and on the first day of their return trip they encountered one or more Indians, thought little of it and camped for the night near the mouth of White Rock Creek in Kansas. The next morning all but one of them was killed.
One of the brief versions was published in 1883. It tells of “thoughtless” shooting at a group of Indians who were well out of range. It has the survivor scolding the rest of the party for risking riling the Indians. The rest of the party thought that he was overreacting. So, those that died were chastised for their thoughtlessness by the one man who would survive. The one man who was lucky enough to live is the only one who came out of the previous days foolishness looking good. Really? The wise man survives while the foolish meet a gory end?
In this telling the men scattered when the attack came and were cut down as they fled. The survivor was saved when his pursuer was distracted by another fleeing man. He crawled along the river and hid under an overhang. This was a story with a moral. Foolish people are punished. Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the source of the information.
By 1901 the shooting by the hunters seems to have been legitimate self-defense, at least the reader is left to assume that it was. The next morning they mounted a previously unmentioned “desperate resistance” with no mention of any fleeing. That might have seemed cowardly. Where did that heroism originate? In this version the survivor simply hid in the brush. No mention of how he got there or that he was near a river. The moral has been replaced by heroism. Again, no mention of the source of the information.
By the time that the last history was written the hunters were “overtaken” by Indians the day before the attack but they drove them away with gunfire. Nothing was written about being hopelessly out of range. There was no detail of the attack at all except that the survivor hid at the river bank. No moral or heroism survived in this telling and only a hint of foolishness remained. Surprisingly, two sources were mentioned, one was the author of the 1901 history. These versions are not independent but this one does seem like an attempt at real history.
There is no mention of the source of the information about the hunt. The author had been a ten-year-old in Ohio or Missouri at the time and her book was published years after the survivor died. There was a long passage quoting a man who had gone to the camp afterward to bury the dead. He said that the bodies were all crowded together. That would tend to weigh against having been killed only after fleeing a good distance.
The storytellers version was very different. There was no shooting the day before the attack. Instead they saw lone horsemen in the distance. They never saw more than one at a time and wondered if it might be an Indian or Indians. Some thought it would be wise to press on for the settlement of Scandia, only a few miles distant, but most thought that they were safe. After all, they were well armed and they might have seen just a single horseman several times. Their horses were tired and it would be good to let them rest. They did not even bother taking turns sitting watch overnight, that wouldn’t be necessary.
The next morning, at the first hint of dawn, the survivor awoke and felt thirsty. He ambled over to a nearby spring to get a drink while his companions slept. Once he was well away from the camp, he heard the thunder of hooves and shouts and screams and gunfire as the attackers shot the hunters dead. The survivor dove into the brush near the spring and went unnoticed even when an Indian came to the spring to drink, though he claimed he could have reached out from his hiding place and touched him.
One Witness, Two Versions, Four Sets of Details
What do we make of this? I see a few things to think about.
Often in family history we are lucky to find just one telling of a story. Here we have four tellings that display two distinct versions. Even the three tellings that are roughly the similar are very different on many points. The forth is clearly about the same occurrences and yet it is very, very different. What does that tell us about trusting that the only version of a story we can find is “true”?
Frequently, different versions of a story can be attributed to different participants and witnesses all seeing different things. They could be fragments of reality that just need proper assembly. In this case, there was only one man who could be the source. Why are the different tellings, especially the storyteller’s, so different. Did the survivor tell one “official” version and another just-between-you-and-me version? Did the authors simply change the story to suit themselves? Did they embellish some details, invent some and drop others?
When people record stories they can have different angles. County histories especially can try to teach lessons or show the county’s residents, past and present, not just in the best light but in unreal light. None of the authors mentioned that there were different versions of what had happened or that there was some disagreement on the facts of the matter. Did “county history etiquette” change the story?
I find it interesting that the version that differed the most from the others, was the only version that referred back to having gotten the information from that one survivor. It was told by a man who twice lived in the same place as that survivor and whose father certainly knew the survivor, so it is quite believable that he really did hear it from the horse’s mouth. So what did “the horse” really say? That is what family history tries to figure out.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 15, 2012
I’ve been considering writing a post about the joys of old newspapers. If I had a dollar for ever chuckle I’ve gotten from ads for “Mrs. Bailey’s Liver Pills” and their myriad competitors in the apparently vast liver pill market, I would be a very rich indeed. Of course, there is so much information about ancestors and their times in those pages. That is normally the point for us.
I may get around to writing that post. In the meantime, I stumbled across something—a quite amazing little something. Enjoy.
THE FAMILY BIBLE MISSED
Individual Records No Longer Kept With Exactness
“The Family Bible with its genealogical record, served a useful purpose in is day,” said the librarian, “and I don’t see that, with all our boasted advance in civilization, we have developed anything quite to take its place. Of course, nowadays, cities and towns pride themselves on the accuracy of their vital statistics, and we have whole libraries of genealogical works—dry enough most of them are, too. But the individual family record, such as was kept a few generations ago, is very decidedly missing, and it is a pity that such is the case.
“For one thing, the list of births, marriages and deaths that were kept in the ponderous volume of Holy Writ operated to keep the members of the family close to one another and was, in a way, a central point, valuable for sentimental reasons as well as for reasons more distinctly utilitarian. As scribe succeeded scribe, the family continuity was emphasized and the entries were significant of the growth of a clannish feeling, which is too little in evidence at the present time. There are not I would venture to say, very many people in this year of grace who know anything or care anything about their relations further removed than the degree of first cousinship, and even first cousins are frequently out of mind. Of course, our tendencies are responsible largely for this state of affairs, but we often wish that we had remembered our kin, such as were furnished in the family Bible of past days with their direct personal testimony, amounting to messages from parents to children. Whenever I see one of these pages filled with careful entries—entries made in joy and sorrow, in the confidence of pride of life or by the trembling fingers of old age. It seems to me that we have lost something in our hurried existence that is to be regretted. We can go to the city or town clerk or, perhaps, to the public library for information as to our ancestry or our relatives but this is a rather cold and formal method of procedure. Certainly, we do not find in official records and in books the handwriting of our forebears.”
May 2, 1907
The Downs (Kansas) News
I have my father’s mother’s parent’s family Bible. My children and their cousins are the fifth generation entered into its crowded pages. May many more generations continue to fill its pages.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 8, 2012
Everyone loves a eureka moment. But what is it that makes a eureka moment? There are many, many answers to that question. Anytime that something makes a sudden move from being “invisible” to “right there,” it can give that Eureka feeling. I don’t know how long it takes on average for a genealogist to have the first experience of staring at names in a register for the fifth time and then suddenly realize that the “Hawkins” they’ve seen before is really the “Hankins” for whom they have been searching but something like that eventually happens to everyone.
There is another kind of eureka producing event. It doesn’t even require a discovery. It can be enough to form the hypothesis. I think of it as the two-birds-with-one-stone eureka moment. You’ve got a problem. It doesn’t make much sense. You’re concentrating on it to the exclusion of a few other things that don’t make much sense either. Then suddenly you realize that there is a scenario that makes sense out of many problems. Eureka! When you discover the proof of that hypothesis you get another chance to say, “eureka!”
I was researching a family that was clear as the nose on my face until they migrated, then they vanished. In some sense that isn’t so strange but in this case I knew exactly where they were. I knew to what post office people back East sent their mail. The area was more or less crawling with their relatives. All those relatives appeared in the census but not this family. All those relatives appeared on plat maps—not this family. Relatives appeared in land records—not this family.
At the same time, among those relatives, I had a disappearing husband, whose only trace seemed to be his surname briefly attached to his wife and child in the short time before she remarried. There was a family story about a fight and prison for the husband but that led nowhere either.
I never formed the hypothesis that my missing family and their relative’s disappearing husband were connected. It would have been so farfetched that I wouldn’t have gotten a eureka moment out of it. More of a “Yah, right” moment. Turned out there were many connections. When I found it, I did get a eureka from it. One discovery and two problems solved.
It is a situation that occurs when putting together a puzzle. You know it all fits together somehow. You’ve found some pieces that fit together. You have few blobs assembled. Each with a few piece in them but you don’t even know where those blobs fit in the big scheme of things, let alone have any reason to believe that they might be closely related. Then suddenly you find the piece that connects some of those blobs together. Eureka!
It is the exact opposite of the independence that you want in your data. You want the answers to fit together into a coherent whole. You want a bunch of pieces and blobs of pieces to come together and give the big picture. You want your hypotheses and discoveries to reveal a web of interdependence. Eureka.
While Americans were celebrating their independence (and perhaps, if genealogists, the independence of their data), particle physicists were celebrating connecting some more puzzle pieces or blobs thereof. The new discovery that appears to be the Higgs Boson is that kind of eureka. The hypothesis is now nearly fifty years old. It fills a hole in our understanding of something called the weak force. Not something one normally encounters in a way we can notice but we wouldn’t be here without it. The universe would be a totally different place without it, even though we can’t be aware of it directly. Though, if you ever have a PET scan, you can thank the weak force.
The Higgs also solves a problem that some interactions between particles would otherwise be calculated to happen with more than 100% probability. If you think about it, it is impossible to decide what that would even mean. In genealogical terms it would be like calculating that someone had 1.5 biological fathers. It just doesn’t work that way.
The Higgs even gives insight into the origins of mass itself. So many puzzle pieces are connected. Eureka.
Two (or more) Birds with One Stone
This kind of eureka occurs when you reach a tipping point. When you know enough to be on the verge of fitting together separate parts into a unified whole. It only comes after a lot of hard work. It only comes when some disparate facts have been fit together into small pieces of what might become the bigger picture.
In principle, stripped to its barest bones, one could do genealogical research with nothing but birth records. You wouldn’t get very far but knowing parentage is that bare minimum. Most people, without really thinking about it, also want records of marriage and death. A few more records to gather but not much of a repertoire and it still won’t get very far. Most people wouldn’t really find it very interesting to do the research or even to learn about the results. To make any real progress, most people quickly start looking at other records—records that require inferences to be drawn, even if only simple ones. In the end, good, try-every-possible-angle genealogy becomes indistinguishable from family history and in many cases, local history. Every scrap of information relevant to the people of primary interest is pulled in, historical context begins to connect. That is when the results of the research start to come to life. That is when we really start to understand. That is when our view becomes sufficiently rich to be captivating. Formerly separate pieces connect. Eureka.
That kind of eureka moment in genealogy comes from working to understand communities, tracing neighbors, learning about associates, studying distant relatives. Wherever there are connections that can be studied, there is a chance that you will find that one connection, that one event, that will cause pieces and groups of pieces to suddenly be connected. Eureka.
By Daniel Hubbard | July 1, 2012
The word leverage can be used in many ways. It means one thing in finance, another in social relationships. The original sense comes from engineering. It is simply the way in which a force can be made more effective through he use of a lever.
At its simplest, a lever is a rigid rod that is held stationary at some point along its length. There are many ways to use a lever, depending on where the fixed point, the “fulcrum,” is but one thing that a lever can do is to turn a small force acting over a large distance into a large force that acts over a small distance. A crowbar is a good example. The the more lever there is between the person exerting the force and the fulcrum, the less the force that is needed to move a weight.
I like to think of leverage in genealogy as well. Some genealogical problems certainly feel like heavy weights. You prod them and poke them and they just don’t move. You push, you pull and nothing happens. You’re stuck or rather, the problem is stuck. You need a lever.
In genealogy, the lever is made out of information. Information isn’t just a product of research, it is a tool for research.
The fulcrum is the point where the known and the unknown meet.
The force is how hard you think about and integrate what you know.
A lever needs four things to be effective. It needs enough length and it needs enough strength. It also needs a well positioned fulcrum and some force.
Maybe you’ve been trying to find a record of a birth and aren’t sure where or when to look. You’ve poked at the problem with a rolled up page from a family Bible (figuratively, please don’t roll up any pages!) but still the problem just sits there. The Bible note records a birth forty years before the Bible itself was printed. It claims a birthplace that didn’t exist at the time of the birth. As material for a lever, it is not much. Its a very short lever and not very strong.
What’s needed is a longer lever. The research needs to cover a longer time. The more of a person’s lifetime that you understand the longer the lever.
Lengthening the Lever
Next comes a census record. The age given doesn’t match the Bible record very well at all and the state is different but it lengthens the lever. Next another census record is added. Ten years earlier and only seven years younger and the state is different again. Still a very flimsy lever. Not really a lever at all.
Time to Strengthen the Lever
You need a strong lever and it won’t be easy to build. It will take many different pieces to put it together.
You decide to calculate rough ages for siblings from what you can learn about them. If they really are siblings, your problem person should somehow fit into the pattern. That is another addition to your lever.
You start to investigate the other people in the area. Many of them came from the same general vicinity before they settled. Perhaps that place should be investigated. You add it to your lever. Another family with a similar surname turns up suspiciously often near your problem ancestor. You add that alternative surname to your lever. You trace them back to where they were a generation before. Your lever is getting better.
A sibling’s obituary gives a supposed place of birth. You hadn’t run across that place in your searches. It turns out to be along a migration route that points back to a region that was already suspicious. More leverage.
A county history makes a claim about your problem person’s ethnicity. One of the places that has turned up is associated with that group. Interesting… More leverage…
You find a letter that mentions a “cousin” that you had never heard of before—more strength to be had there with some research.
Moving the Fulcrum
Another thing to try is moving the fulcrum, the boundary between what is known and what is unknown. Perhaps you can locate a land record that implies that your problem person has come of age. Years earlier you find a will in which the father lists your problem person among his minor children. Those give you new and more reliable times. You can reposition that fulcrum.
One Last Effort
Once the lever has some length, some strength and you’ve pushed the known as close as you can to the problem, it is time to jump on the lever—hard. Think, integrate, discover subtle clues. Your airborne ancestor will thank you.
“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”
By Daniel Hubbard | June 24, 2012
How we mark time can be a very cultural thing. Today we think of June as the month for weddings. In the Irish parish registers that I have been reading of late, the weddings just pile up one on top of the other, but not in June, in February. Then nothing for weeks. Lent had come. That culture marked time that way.
This weekend my family and I celebrated the Swedish festival of “midsommar” or “midsummer” in English. It is one of those days that a culture uses to mark time. As the Swedish year rolls round, there are few days that can compare. Culturally speaking, it is probably the most important day of the year. It also comes with a few calendric twists.
The Recipe for the Date of Midsummer
Of course, midsummer sounds like it ought to occur in the middle of the summer but it doesn’t. It started as celebration of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. That midsummer is not what we now consider to be the middle of summer is just one of those things. In the English speaking world we sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” at Christmas time and rarely do we wonder what the middle of winter has to do with Christmas. “Midwinter” is just a reference to the winter solstice not what we would consider to be the middle of winter.
Ingredient One, Astronomy
Start with the summer solstice, the moment when the sun reaches as far north as it ever does. Of course the sun isn’t really moving north, it is just an effect of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and its movement around the sun.
Ingredient Two, Pagan Ritual
Midsommar was once a pagan celebration of the solstice but it no longer occurs on the date of the solstice.
Ingredient Three, Medieval Christianity
Midsummer was Christianized by moving it to the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, the most conveniently located significant feast day. John the Baptist was supposedly born six months before Christ, which means that once one assigns Christmas to be December 25, St. John’s Day should be June 25.
Ingredient Four, a Pinch of Roman Calendar
Yet midsommar is not on the 25th. St. John’s Day is the 24th. It seems that no one really knows why but the suspicion is that in Roman way of reckoning time, one counted backwards from various fixed points during the month. At the end of a month, one actually counted down to the first day of the next month. December is one day longer than June. Using the Roman way of thinking, Christmas is eight days before the first day of the month (you might say seven days but the Romans had a different way of thinking about such things). St. John’s Day is also the eighth day before the start of the next month from the Roman point of view.
Let the Mixture Sit While You Ponder
So far, we have an astronomical event (the solstice) which inspired a pagan festival, which was Christianized to a slightly different date. That date was determined from a Biblical reference and the date was probably computed using a calendar system that we no longer quite understand, in order to arrive on a date a day before we would expect. Got that?
Shift By a Day
The next twist is also very cultural, people say “midsommar” but what they actually mean is the day before. In Sweden there is a tendency to celebrate the day before a holiday. I’ve never found an explanation for this but I started to wonder when I lived there if it is that the holidays were once considered too sacred to actually be celebrated on the actual day, so one celebrated the day before. So people say “midsommer” but actually celebrate what we might call midsummer eve.
Stir in the Week
So people celebrate on the 23rd of June, right? Well, maybe in other countries but not in Sweden. Once upon a time it was the 23rd that was celebrated and the 24th was the holiday. My wife’s grandfather was born on the 24th of June and always enjoyed celebrating his “birthday eve” and then having his birthday off from work. He was very unhappy in the 1950s when the cycle of the week impinged itself upon his day and Midsommar was moved to the first Saturday after the 19th.
Once you move such a celebration to another country, where midsummer eve is not a day off from work, the celebrating naturally moves from Friday to Saturday and so one ends up celebrating the “eve” on the actual holiday.
So to recap. If we mix an astronomical event, pagan celebration, a Biblical reference, the Roman calendar, a cultural tendency to celebrate the day before the holiday and finally, the seven day week with a two day weekend and stir vigorously, you get the day of the Swedish midsommar celebration.
As genealogists it can be important to know how the cultures of our ancestors marked time. We shouldn’t expect their yearly rhythms to be the same as ours. We shouldn’t expect the milestones in our ancestors calendar to remain unchanged. And, Let’s face it, those festivals and celebrations are interesting and just plain fun!
Sweden shuts down for midsummer eve. Everything is closed. My wife and I married in Sweden on midsummer day and warned all the nonSwedish guests to take care of things on Thursday at the latest. Getting money changed and shopping would not be possible after that. We still needed to loan people taxi money to get home from the reception. They hadn’t comprehended just how closed everything would be.
Here is a funny and actually pretty accurate introduction to Swedish midsommar. Enjoy!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 17, 2012
I was just looking back over the post I wrote almost exactly a year ago. I had taken a twenty mile bike ride with my daughter and written about how the speed we traveled and the nature we saw made me think about how my ancestors would have seen this part of the country as they came to the wilderness to settle. I won’t go through the experience again. You can read it at “The Three-Mile-Per-Hour World.” I was looking at it because Friday we took the first long ride of the year and managed twenty-five miles.
It was a rather long ride for the first of the season and a daughter that is still in middle school. Yet, it was in another way, nothing. It was a bring-a-picnic-lunch-and-be-back-in-time-for-afternoon-watermelon type of journey. Though these trips can remind me of how our ancestors must have seen the world, the hardships along the way are not to be compared. Perhaps even more importantly, journey’s end is different.
There is a question that can be asked, “How far can one go and still return?” There are many ways to look at it. Physical distance can be the important thing. Immigrants and settlers often traveled extreme distances and had no expectation of ever being able to see the places of their childhood again. Maybe they later got the chance, but only because technology changed and made possible what had been unrealistic.
Travel has costs as well. Many had no expectations of ever having the money to make a return journey. When many of them came, the trip was so grueling, that the cost in health might not be something they were willing to risk paying a second time.
Then there is the desire to make that return. Many had no desire to return to a place that would only remind them of poverty or suffering. Many could not legally return to a place from which they had escaped. When I was a child, in the days of the Iron Curtain, our school had a janitor from Poland. I don’t remember him very clearly but everyone knew him and he was always nice to us kids. He went back to Poland to visit his mother. We never saw him again and we never knew why.
Sometimes returning from a journey can be more mental than physical. People are sometimes surprised that I experience culture shock here where I grew up. After twenty years in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, it isn’t possible to simply return. The place I left no longer exists in some sense even though I am in it in another sense. Even with the telephone, the internet, radio and television, I have returned to a place that I was never in before. Our immigrant ancestors arrived in a new land before there were any of those things to inform them about the place that they had left. As much as they might pine for “the old country,” it was just that, old. To truly return quickly became a matter not just for travel but for time travel.
Physical Return Is Not Everything
The most profound way to think about that question, “How far can one go and still return?” is to wonder when the changes made on the traveler by the journey itself become too great to ever return. How far from home can the mind travel and still be able to make the journey back?
Few Americans have ever traveled as far mentally as the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They traveled to places that no white American had seen. They encountered culture after culture that was profoundly different from their own. They traveled through territory where they never really knew what to expect. They hoped for an easy portage and instead encountered a towering wall of mountains. Sometimes the experiences are just too intense. Sometimes the changes are too great. Sometimes you cannot go back.
After two years, four months, and ten days all but one of the men of the Corps of Discovery returned physically. Meriwether Lewis spent two years trying to govern the Louisiana Territory that he had explored. He had a difficult time and set out for Washington to try to make things right. Most historians believe that when he was found shot and bleeding at Grinder’s Stand along the Natchez Trace, he was suffering from self-inflicted wounds. He died the following morning. It has been suggested that his epic journey had changed him to the point where he simply could not return, even though he tried.
Few of our ancestors will have experienced any journey so profound as to make it impossible for the mind to return. Nevertheless, some will have been changed to the point that even after their physical return, one can wonder if they truly made it back. I’m reminded of the Civil War veteran who, when his health was failing and he expected to die, spoke of passing away and being transported to some sort of 19th century Valhalla, where, with restored vigor, he and his brothers in arms could relive the life and death struggles of their youth. The campfires would glow again. The smell of powder would fill the air. The scream of the minie balls and the wounded would fill the ears and the roar of the artillery would be felt in the pit of the stomach. He and many of his comrades never really made it back either.
To try to understand genealogy is to try to understand our ancestors’ journey.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 10, 2012
Two things happened to me the other day that prompted some thinking. I heard an ad for a BBC radio play about a fictional meeting between Thomas Edison and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Edison wished to record the aged Tennyson reciting some of his famous poems, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson wavered over and over again with thoughts of the balance between true creative recitation of a memory and preserved sound that will always be the same. He fretted about flirting with the ability to speak from beyond the grave.
It seemed to me that I had run across this feeling before. That is, each new technology that gives us another way to preserve ourselves makes people think about immortality and what the new technology really means. Tennyson’s misgivings about recording his voice seem to have been fictional but the connection between technology and thoughts of immortality is real.
I realized that one sometimes hears people’s thoughts about social media profiles that live on even after the person who was social passes away. Once again, a new technology brings new musings about immortality. Within a few hours of hearing about Tennyson and Edison, I heard precisely one of those discussions about social media. The topic was the Facebook pages of people who have died, where friends can still see that last year on this day he took a sick dog to the vet, ate fresh strawberries from the garden or even learned that he was soon going to die. All still there as if it was just written. The page still sending out birthday reminders to friends every year.
As family historians we dabble in the immortality that comes with preserving, collecting and correlating information. We try to recreate people who are no longer here by gathering what we can. We read records that give us ideas about who a person was, how they looked, what they thought, how they behaved… Mostly we deal with written records that are not particularly personal and we need to recreate the personal from data and inference. Sometimes though, they are just that. They are personal. We have letters or a diary that give us a person’s actual words and reflecting their actual thoughts. If we get the preservation right, those thoughts become immortal.
Writing must be the oldest form of technological immortality and most “genealogical immortality” flows from written records. We often phrase it just that way when we think about the written word, “Paul Revere was immortalized in a poem” would be a perfectly normal thing to say. We explicitly couple writing with immortality. I once found a long dead relative of mine immortalized in just this way as a character in a play. It is quite an odd feeling to read a work of literature and see a name from your family tree, read incidents from his life and realize that he had been immortalized.
While preparing this post, I tried to find references from the time of an invention that discussed immortality as a result of the new form of preservation. Statements along the lines of what is read or heard in current discussions of social media presences that live on even after we die. That isn’t really possible for writing.
On the other hand, authors often make reference to how their work or the thoughts that they write become immortal.
From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple- a few plain words- My Heart Laid Bare. But- this little book must be true to its title.
-Edgar Allan Poe
I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
- James Joyce
One of the oldest remaining works of literature, younger than less than a dozen other works, is the famous Sumerian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The story itself can be said to be immortal, both in the literary sense and in the fact that it has survived and is still known over 4000 years after the first parts were written down. It also is about immortality. Even then writing and immortality went hand in hand. It seems that
Sumerians held the belief that writing would bring renown and assure immortality, and used the same word, mu, to signify both “name” and “fame.” By creating inscriptions and documenting their feats, Sumerian kings attempted to establish mu dari, or an “eternal name,” for themselves.*
The first commercially successful form of photography was invented by Louis Daguerre. He became immortalized (or perhaps immortalized himself) in the name of the process, daguerreotype. The daguerreotypist John J.E. Mayall even produced an image that he titled “This Mortal must put on Immortality.”
The technology that eventually exceeded the daguerreotype in popularity was called the ambrotype. Its name comes from two words in Ancient Greek, ἀνβροτός and τύπος, which mean “immortal impression.”
Before photography there had been portrait painting that could capture a person’s likeness but before the phonograph, there was only memory that could capture a person’s voice. At the time of its invention, people were well aware that the ability to preserve sound, was something that was totally new. Something that had been very fleeting could become permanent.
It has been said that Science is never sensational; that it is intellectual, not emotional; but certainly nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done…. Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
-Scientific American, November 17, 1877
Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter. It is true that the voices are stilled, but whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be pronounced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. A strip of indented paper travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and posterity centuries hence hear us as plainly as if we were present. Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
-Daily Picayune, December 9, 1877
You can watch an old movie and be aware that every actor that moves through every scene is dead and yet they seem as alive as the day that the film was made. One of the telltale signs of life is a person’s ability to move without any external impetus. Yet, thanks to the invention of motion pictures people who are long gone can move across the screen as if they were still twenty, though born a hundred years ago.
“Film was seen as a triumph of realism and even proclaimed as a hedge against mortality, since films would preserve the living appearance of people long after they were dead.”**
Not everyone finds this type of immortality through preservation to be sufficient. Woody Allen summed up his opinion as,
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Tennyson’s 1890 recording of The Charge of the Light Brigade, made by one of Edison’s assistants, still exists and when found, was still playable. About the time that he made the recordings he began a prolonged illness. He died two years later, though his voice lives on.
I found this video which uses that recording. You can clearly hear the famous opening lines “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward.”If it is sometimes hard to understand, remember that the owner of this voice died one hundred and twenty years ago. The text of the poem appears below the video to help you follow the recording. The other thing about this video is that Tennyson moves as he recites though the starting point was a still photograph. Technology has made it possible for those made immortal with a photograph to move again.
Now, I need to get back to working on a few people’s genealogical immortality…
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
*Rachel Galvin, “The Imprint of Immortality,” Humanities Sept.-Oct. 2002
** Richard Abel (editor), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, Routledge, (New York : 2005 )
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