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Painting Your Ancestors into a Corner

By Daniel Hubbard | August 10, 2014

Some ancestors make life easy on us. They can be found in record after record. Their names are clearly written and spelled in a way that makes sense. They seem always to be recorded with enough extra information to really be sure that they are who we think they are.

Some ancestors seem to refuse to be identified. Everything is ambiguous. The name both common and questionable as written. The place is iffy. Nothing matches really well and several people might paint brushbe the person you are after. Of course, it might be that none of them is right. It is time to try to paint that ancestor into a corner. Take what you think you know about the problem person. Born 1840? Try eliminating people who seem to have been born before 1835. Paint that part of the floor. Eliminate people born after 1845. Paint that part of the floor too. Next, what about places? Was your ancestor supposedly born in New York? Paint other states that aren’t neighboring. To be a bit more generous, maybe New Hampshire shouldn’t be painted since it is close and begins with “New.” If your source for New York was really questionable, maybe nothing at all in New England should be painted. The idea is to really put some thought into what the constraints are—what should really not be true of that ancestor. Try to eliminate people who fall within those unacceptable names, dates, places, etc. Who is left? Can more constraints be found, like occupation perhaps? Someone who was a machinist one year might be a machinist or a mechanic the next year but probably not a butcher.

If there are several people left in the unpainted corner, only more research can eliminate them. Is the last person, hemmed in by the paint the correct person? That still needs to be proven but from what you know, that person is the most likely candidate. Eliminate that person too and it is time to wipe away some of the paint and consider the people who were painted into those places.

Note: For anyone who is a glutton for punishment, the idea for this way of thinking about cornering our difficult ancestors occurred to me when I was reminded of learning a mathematical technique called linear programing. It might seem simple but it actually can get complex. (The version I learned in grade school was way over at the simple end of the spectrum!) I was amused to read that it wasn’t developed until World War II, when it was created for helping the Red Army optimize its planning, and was kept secret until 1947. Though painting our ancestors into corners isn’t quite the same thing as linear programing, that it is even very vaguely related to something that was a state secret within living memory seems pretty odd.

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It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where You Are Researching?

By Daniel Hubbard | August 3, 2014

When I lived in France and before I had kids, I had a large map of Europe that I mounted on a sheet of corrugated cardboard. I had it hanging on the wall and every time I visited a new place, I stuck a pin into that spot. To add a bit of information, I changed pin colors every year so that I could see not just where I had been but when I had been there. Most of the time, the exact year that I had been somewhere didn’t really matter but there were times when it did. The pin for Lucerne showed that I had been there before the famous 14th century covered bridge, the Kapellbrücke, burned. It has since been restored but having walked it before the fire does mean something to me.

These days much of my traveling is in the form of seeing places through their documents. I means I get to travel just about every day and not just to different places but to different times as well. If I still had that map of Europe and a map of North America as well, I could now be adding pins for places I’ve researched. That brings up the question of what does it mean to have researched in a place?

1794_map_of_the_world_pinsFor example. I’ve researched in German records. Logically, that means I’ve researched in records that were produced in Germany. Yet many of the “German” records that I have used were not produced in a place that was within the jurisdiction of Germany at the time because there was no such jurisdiction. Germany might have existed as a concept but it did not exist as a nation-state. One might then think that it is a matter of language. A “German” record would then be a record from Central Europe that was written in German. Many, including Austrians and Swiss, would disagree with that.

I’ve researched in records produced within the Austrian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which one could argue was the same place except that they were under two rather different different organizations. I’ve researched in records that came from the Austrian part and the Hungarian part. Does that count as two places? Most people today would say “yes” but though some of those “Hungarian” records were in Hungarian, others were in German, which probably still doesn’t make them Austrian records. It certainly wouldn’t make them German records even if they were written in German. Because they were created under Austrian, or Hungarian or Austro-Hungarian law they must belong to one of those places. Make sense? Also, some of those “Hungarian” records were written in neither Hungarian nor German but were in Latin instead. Did I mention that many of those records came from places that are no longer within the boarders of Hungary? Where would I put those pins?

I research extremely often in Swedish records. I have also researched in Norwegian records. Those places are close but they are clearly two places—except that during most of the 19th century they were sort of one place, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, which still functioned as two places from the point of view of their record keeping. I suppose I could put a pin in each in good conscience.

I’ve researched in the records of the United Kingdom quite a bit, but one normally thinks of those “united” parts as separate when it comes to the records. Researching in Scotland isn’t the same as researching in England, for example. Then there is Ireland, which people sometimes forget was, in its entirety, part of the United Kingdom within living memory. We often need to talk about the “United Kingdom including Ireland” even though back at the time being referred to, there is no question that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. So, do I put in pins for all the countries that were in the United Kingdom in the 19th century? Does researching in records from northern Ireland count as a different place if they were created before there was a jurisdiction called Northern Ireland? Is that a fifth pin? If a record was created in one place but accessed under the jurisdiction of another place, does that count as two places or only one?

I’ve researched in Canadian records. Of course many of them were created when the word “Canada” might have meant something but before 1867 it didn’t mean what it means today. Was I researching in New Brunswick, Quebec/Lower Canada/Canada East and Ontario/Upper Canada/Canada West as separate places, which they were or as parts of Canada, which they are now? How many pins do I put in my map?

Then there is the United States. How many places is it? Before 1776 it was clearly several places. It wasn’t just 13 places either. If I put a pin into Massachusetts, does that cover the state, the colony, and the original Massachusetts Bay Colony, and for that matter, Plymouth Colony? I’ve researched in records produced in all those versions of, and ingredients in, “Massachusetts.”

Then there is the question of the colors for my pins, I might color them by the year that I first researched in those records. I might also color them based on the time period that I had researched. Both color systems would have some useful meaning. Places change with time, jurisdictions that hold the records change with time. It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where you are researching?



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Doing Odd Jobs

By Daniel Hubbard | July 27, 2014

I sometimes imagine certain things that can only be called genealogists’ blessings. This week one of them has turned up over and over. It would go something like this-

May all your ancestors have had truly odd occupations.

Having a deeply strange occupation or even just a slightly unusual job can make the difference between an ancestor that you can follow through the records and an ancestor that fades into the background noise. It can also be a way of spotting connections between people in the days when occupations tended to run in families. In my own family there is a man with s somewhat unusual surname. He was a plasterer. I’ve stumbled across some men with that name and a few of them have also been plasterers. Every one of those plasterers has turned out to be a relative of some sort. Every one. The families with that name that don’t include a plasterer might be related as well, but if so, the relationship is more distant.

This week I have researched an ambrotypist (a photographer who took a type of photograph known as an ambrotype), a leaf maker (someone who made artificial leaves, in this case for women’s hats), a lace merchant and a button hole maker (someone who drilled holes into unfinished buttons in the days before they were molded from plastic). Though I dream of the day that one of my research targets proves to be Brooklyn’s only yak herder, every one of those occupations is odd enough to be a wonderful help for research. That leaf maker can move around almost all he wants but as long as his unusual occupation is listed, he can run but he can’t really hide from us.

Keeping track of occupations isn’t just for putting meat on the genealogical bones. What a person did for a living can be the most important clue you have. I wonder of my own descendents will appreciate that I can be found with the occupations  particle physicist and genealogists at different stages of my life.

Now off to see if Brooklyn ever had a yak herder…

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Researching FANs

By Daniel Hubbard | July 20, 2014

Summer is, perhaps, the right time to think about fans—except that the kind of fans that I’ve been thinking about aren’t for keeping cool and they don’t cheer at the ballpark. I don’t even mean entering names from my pedigree into a fan chart. I’m working with a different kind of fan for a client. This FAN stands for Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors.

Wait, isn’t genealogy about ancestors? Why would one want to study all those extra people?

Much of the time we don’t need to study those extra people. They may be interesting in their own right. They may add spice to what we know of our ancestors but they aren’t absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, there are times when our ancestors seem to vanish into the crowd. Then we need to understand the crowd to find them. Put another way, you can’t find a needle in a haystack without ever touching any of the hay.

Neighbors should be a clear concept. Land records and censuses can be quite explicit about who the neighbors were. How does one know about friends and acquaintances? Letters, local histories, court records and even wills can be explicit about those people but there are more subtle clues. Who witnessed a document? Who performed various services related to probate? Who shared an unusual occupation or had the same work address listed in a directory? Almost any document can produce a unique clue about Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors. I’ve been playing around with acronyms for places where one might look for FANs. One place to look for a fan is on the ceiling.


Employers and employees,
Itinerants (even boarders can be a clues),
Locals (sometimes we might define neighbor too narrowly),
Immigrants (who else was on the boat?),
Nationals (from the same country or with the same native language?),
Group members (Connections exist between members of organizations)

Odd connections can turn out not to be so odd if you show that a group was tight-knit. In what I’m working on now, a woman’s brother’s sister-in-law’s father’s neighbor has the same unusual surname as the siblings’ mother. Coincidence? It might be, but the more I study this group, the more tightly bound they appear to be. The lines that I draw to connect people to the documents that show them together form quite a tangled web. It seems that if one of them knew someone or was related to someone, then they all knew that person. More and more, it seems that they were also all related. Where there are relatives, there are greater chances to find ancestors.

Good luck finding CEILING FANs or any other type of FAN. They just might provide the clue you need.

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Sign Here Please

By Daniel Hubbard | July 13, 2014

Today when we think of autograph books, we think of a fan holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other, arms outstretched toward some celebrity. Having one of those once owned by your grandmother might tell you something about her tastes at one stage of her life but it wouldn’t really serve as a useful genealogical resource.

Autograph books have been around since the 1400s. They were not then what they have become. In the early days of autograph books, they were used by university students to collect the signatures of professors and classmates. The modern yearbook descends from that use of the autograph book. Unfortunately, the number of people who can trace their ancestry back to someone who graduated from a university ca. 1480 is rather small and the chance that the right autograph book has survived, or ever existed, doesn’t give one much hope.

Nineteenth Century

A 19th century autograph book. photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

A 19th century autograph book.
photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

Nineteenth century autograph books are another matter. Even then, university students were a rare breed, but the use of autograph books had spread well beyond them. The books were especially common among children.  Friends still signed but so did another group of people that perks up our genealogical ears—relatives. I’ve used autograph books several times in research and I’ve learned that those relatives can be very kind to the genealogists who would later appear in their families. Simply signing “Cousin Roger” can be helpful. Usually people dated entries as well, so that means we can be sure that Cousin Roger signed on June 23, 1888. That’s better. Sometimes those relatives added the town where they lived. Now we have Cousin Roger signing on June 23, 1888 and telling us that he lived in Cornerville, Illinois. That makes it even more interesting. There is one last possibility. Cousin Roger might not have signed “Cousin Roger.” Instead he might have signed “Cousin Roger Haskell.” If that wasn’t your ancestor’s surname, that name could be new to you. If you don’t know the maiden name of the mother of the autograph book’s owner, you may have found a very big clue.

If we leave Cousin Roger behind, one last thing to point out about these books has to do with the age of the original owner. Because they were often young, older relatives were typically among the signers. People in the owner’s generation are wonderful to identify. People one or two generations back can be even better. Finding the signature of “Grandpa Hartman, Oakton, Iowa” could just lead to that elusive genealogical adrenaline rush. “Uncle Horace Haskell” signing the same day as Cousin Roger wouldn’t be so bad either.

 Just for Fun

There are fun things in these books as well. Often people did not simply sign. They might scribble out a short poem or aphorism or perhaps add a quick sketch. It tells you something about the personality of the signer and perhaps their impression of what the book’s owner might like.

The poems can be serious, as in the example image in this post, but they are often a bit fluffy or silly. They tend to be something well known with just a few words changed to fit the occasion-

Roses are red,
Tree bark is brown,
I look forward to seeing you,
Next time I’m in town.

I just made that up, but it is the type of thing that one finds. It is interesting  that people of the late nineteenth century seemed to have a much richer set of silly knock-off poems to choose from than we have today. You won’t be stuck with twenty versions of “Roses are red” if you read an old autograph book.

One can also find somewhat heavier statements in autograph books from time to time. Sentences like “Remember that the hand of our mighty Lord rests upon you in judgement now and always” are rare but do appear.  Those also tell us something about the person who would write that in the autograph book of a child.

Autograph Hunting

These books are not something that you are likely to run into casually but they do still exists. Some archival collections contain a set of autograph books. Relative’s attics are another prime category of storage location. When interviewing relatives it is always wise to ask about family mementos, especially that family Bible you’ve heard of but that no one can locate. Another wise thing to ask about are small, thin books between the size of a credit card and a post card. They may say nothing at all on the cover. They may be full of autographs.

Happy hunting!


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By Daniel Hubbard | July 6, 2014

A few years ago about this time of year, when independence is an important word, I wrote a post about data independence—the idea that only independent data improves our knowledge. When data all derives from the same source it is dependent. More dependent data does nothing to help us move our research forward.

I’ve been thinking about that again both because of the time of year and because of the talk on DNA that I’m working on.

One of the things that makes DNA so useful is its independence from documents and the human memories that produced them. DNA is also free from questions of tampering (at least for now) and provenance. Virtually every document we use is a written version of  a memory. The memory may be correct or incorrect. It might be fresh or faded. It might have been checked or corroborated at the time or it might not. It might be an attempt to relate what happened or in a few cases it might be intentionally altered, bending the truth or altering it beyond all recognition.

DNA is a chemical memory, not a mental one. A DNA test might give a false positive or a false negative. It might even give correct and yet truly bizarre results in those rare cases of chimerism in which a person is their own twin and passes on DNA to their children that does not at all correspond to what was found by the familiar swab of the check. For the most part though, DNA correctly tells us about the biological relationships that form that part of our personal past. It yields that information in a way that is independent of of any memory or document. It does not come filled with names, dates and places as documents do. Without help it is silent on those points but it does tell an almost unerring story of the the links between us.

Yet the whole point of DNA evidence is dependence. Your DNA depends on your parents DNA, which depended on their parents DNA. If you find a match, the reason that you have done so is that your match’s DNA depends on the DNA of an ancestor you have in common. It is the lack of independence from person to person that gives DNA its value to genealogy. My DNA and my distant cousin’s DNA both depend on one or two long ago people who passed on the DNA that doesn’t just partially determine who we are, it identifies the link between us.

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Leave No Document Unturned

By Daniel Hubbard | June 29, 2014

The other day a client whose Swedish ancestry I’ve been investigating asked me to take on a project researching in Norwegian records. Norwegian research isn’t something I’d done before except for a document here or there but with that full disclosure, I said I would take a look.

Getting into new records is always interesting. There are so many ways to record the events that give us those stepping stones we walk across to understand people’s lives. Every new jurisdiction, culture, religion and time period has different aspects to its records. Having done so much Swedish research, Norwegian records feel somewhat familiar but they aren’t the same. Those differences act as reminders to keep the eyes and the mind open. Open eyes and open mind are things that apply no matter what the records are and no matter how familiar we are with them.


Marriage records are one of the more variable records there are. An incomplete list includes both civil and religious records, licenses, license returns, certificates and registers. The marriage entry in the parish register for the Norwegian man that I was researching was not particularly enlightening. It gave me the event date, his name, his bride’s name and the names of their fathers. This just confirmed information that I already had. That is always good but rarely exciting. The marriage entry also gave me the date of their marriage banns.

Marriage banns were announcements made in the parish church stating that a couple intended to marry. The idea was to allow anyone to come forward who knew of a reason why the couple should not marry. Banns were typically read on three consecutive Sundays. Often banns did not produce separate records. If a record exists of them at all, the dates might be found jotted into the marriage record. In my case there were separate banns records produced. If one expected them to just be a list of dates and the couple’s names, they might be a record that you wouldn’t bother to examine. Leave no stone, or document unturned. In this case the record of the banns included not just three banns dates and the names of the couple. The record included his occupation, their birth dates and places, their baptismal dates, their confirmation dates and the names of both of their parents, not just their fathers. The record of the banns may not say that the couple actually married but it did contain much more information than the marriage record itself.

Leave no document unturned.

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War Diary

By Daniel Hubbard | June 22, 2014

We got an email from Germany this week. It said that after 2 1/2 years of work, they had finished the graphic novel that contains part of my children’s great-grandfather’s diary from WWI. The goal is to interest young people in their history, something that we as family historians deal with often. It tells the story of the war that was supposed to end all wars through the eyes and with the words of four people who experienced it—two french, two German, two soldiers, two civilians.

It amazes me not just that we still have those diaries a century later. It amazes me that he kept notes under the conditions that he did and that they survived the rain, the mud, the shooting and the panic.

Walter Bärtel's sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

Walter Bärthel’s sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

It is not always easy for people to comprehend their past. The younger we are, the harder it can be. In some cases we should be glad when it seems so alien to us. The First World War should seem unthinkable, but we still need to understand the unthinkable in our past. Having grown up in the Midwest, I had seen the occasional Civil War statues and plaques in village squares here and there. I have visited Gettysburg with its seemingly never ending monuments. When I moved to France, I soon got the feeling that every village had its monument with name after name running down the sides. It felt familiar and yet more intense, especially knowing that there were people alive at the time who could remember those men whose names were written there.

The email contained a link to a part of a German television program that discussed the book. It was, as I expected, an extraordinary experience to see images of my wife’s grandfather. They were drawn both to tell his story and to let his story represent so many other stories. I felt an even more personal connection when I saw a couple images, made on our scanner, being used to tell a story far bigger than those pictures. Not all family history works that way but it is amazing how often our “little” stories tell stories far, far bigger than themselves.

You can watch the video “Tagebuch:14-18″ (Diary: 1914-1918). Even if you don’t understand German, the pictures convey quite a bit and I can almost imagine that the speaker’s tone at the beginning conveys, “History? What has that got to do with us?” even if you don’t understand that he is saying exactly that.

In the end, I was reminded of a line spoken in a Ken Burns documentary that I can paraphrase as something like—sometimes we do things to each other that serve to turn us into the kind of people that can no longer imagine how such things were possible.

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Nature vs Nurture

By Daniel Hubbard | June 15, 2014

I’m getting ready to give a talk about understanding the use of DNA in genealogical research. It is one thing to just jump right into DNA. It is another to wrap your head around it.

One thing I’ve realized is that I need to point out that there are two types parental role. There is the biological role and the upbringing role—nature and nurture. We are used to those roles being one and the same but they aren’t always. The documents that we use have the potential to tell us about both roles. DNA can only tell us about the people who filled the nature role.

That can be a powerful difference. DNA is not ambiguous about which role is which, as documents can be. Nature is in the DNA, nurture is not. Yet it can also lead down a path that is not truly correct. Once we think that we can use DNA to answer questions like, “Who was his real father?” we have started down that wrong path. The parent that raised a child is just as real as the parent that helped to create the child. Genes are one thing, years of nurturing are another, very real thing. If we are really doing family history, then those parents who filled the nurture role without filling the nature role are people that we need to research, even if they did not pass on their genes to us. Who they were, how they were brought up, who shaped them and raised those that shaped them, are all important influences. They are people who might have made an ancestors life totally different from what it would have been.

DNA can help to unravel the pairs of people who filled the biological role and usually, that tells us about the nurture role as well. Nevertheless, if those biological ancestors aren’t the same as the ones who filled the nurture role, then DNA is silent. In that case, DNA’s strength can become a weakness if we make it so. We make it so if we think that the flow of genes is all that we are researching.

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Washing Hogs

By Daniel Hubbard | June 8, 2014

I didn’t start out to write a two part post but this post has become part 2 of last weeks about the nonfiction contract.

What inspired this post, and last week’s as well, are a couple of recent run-ins with some nineteenth century “nonfiction.” Clearly standards were different over one hundred years ago and the distance created by a century helps us see the nonfiction contract breaking as well. How much credence would you give a work on a surname that begins with page after page about how the people of that name all descend from a specific tribe mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar? How believable is the story of a son about whom nothing is known except that he left many descendants, who is the only child of a mysterious first wife whose death is assumed because it was unrecorded and, by the way, no record of the marriage is known either? If you intended for the reader to believe that, you wouldn’t word it the way I just did but even dressed up nicely and stretched out for several paragraphs, the hogwash alarms sound. The contract is clearly broken. The reader moves on. Anyone can write hogwash but clearly it does not age as well as careful writing based on equally careful research.

Warning: Breaking the nonfiction contract can lead to hogwash

Warning: Breaking the nonfiction contract can lead to hogwash

Those examples are real but one need not take the full plunge into pure hogwash to break the nonfiction contract. So, what happens if you break the nonfiction contract? It is actually an easy question to answer. If the casual reader catches you, then they will stop believing you. That is the kiss of death for a piece of writing meant to convey information to them. The story might be worth reading but part of that worth is that it is reality. They started to read with the understanding that those little bits of information that they might pickup along the way are factual and  that the story is giving them insight into actual occurrences, not the author’s imagination. If they are given reason to doubt, then why should they read?

If a family historian reads your nonfiction narrative, they should already be doubting you. That, though, is a constructive doubt. It ought to be the doubt of a real researcher who wants to go find the evidence for your statements for themselves. If you break the nonfiction contract, the doubt becomes the kind of doubt that means that what you have written may be judged as not being worth the trouble to check. For your writing, that is once again the kiss of death.


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