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By Daniel Hubbard | May 31, 2015

Being unsure is a pretty common thing in genealogy. It is an inherent part of research to be uncertain and to work to reduce the uncertainty. One of the things that can go wrong in research is to forget to have doubts.

Usually the uncertainty we have is because we suspect we might have the wrong person, have records that disagree, or that have secondary information. There are certainly other reasons why one might feel uncertain.

Sometimes the records themselves tell us that we should be uncertain—not in any implied way way either, but quite explicitly. One of my favorite census records* has a marginal note made by the enumerator. It reads “The best information I could get.” That is pretty clear. It tells us that even the enumerator doubted the quality of the information. It also tells us something of the difficulties  enumerators faced. In this case it was interviewing without a common language. It may also tell us something about the personality of that enumerator. It is easy to forget that our ancestors weren’t just the ones who were recorded, they might also have been among the ones who did the recording. If your ancestor was the one who made that note, what would it tell you about him? It wasn’t every enumerator that left warnings about data quality, though many should have.

This week I was reading some old English parish registers, or to be precise, bishop’s transcripts. I ran into another example. An entry in the 1628 christenings caught my eye, because it didn’t quite fit the pattern of the others. It added the word “supposed” in front of the word son. The minister who wrote that might have meant that the child was illegitimate. He might have been expressing his doubts. If it is the latter, it might be telling us something of the minister’s personality. What makes the record just a little bit stranger is that this register does not list the mothers of any children, so we have no idea who the one certain parent was and we are told to doubt the one named.

"Thomas ye supposed sonne of Charles Woods was baptized the 15th of March"

“Thomas ye supposed sonne of Charles Woods was baptized the 15th of March”

Eleven days later when the child was buried, he was once again identified as the supposed son of his father. These are records that explicitly say that we need to be uncertain.


* Yes, I have favorite census records, it’s an occupational hazard.

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Contrafactual Genealogy

By Daniel Hubbard | May 24, 2015

The other day I heard a program that discussed whether or not contrafactual history was “real” history. Some argue that history should only be concerned with what actually happened. Playing with “what if” questions might be fun, but it is fiction, not history. Others contend that analyzing other possibilities, paths that never got a chance to play out, outcomes that were never reached, allows us to see what did happen with greater understanding. What got me thinking was a statement that, when nuclear missile sites were discovered on Cuba, the Kennedy administration was able to think contrafactually about the First World War. What if after that fateful day in Sarajevo, the Great Powers had found ways to pull back instead of choosing to march headlong into Armageddon? What if they could make the choices that were not made in 1914?

This was mentioned as an example of using the contrafactual as a tool, as a way of seeing alternatives. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a genealogical problem, I like to play with contrafactual genealogy. I don’t mean something like—what if grandpa and grandma had never met (clearly they did), but instead she had moved to the forest and built a house of gingerbread with the help of a family of friendly elves and he had sailed away to an enchanted island filled with magical unicorns. That would certainly be contrafactual but it would hardly help. It would take more than the assistance of friendly elves to make that scenario useful.

I am thinking more along the lines of-

  • What if great-grandpa disappeared well before I was told that he had? What records would I expect to find if that one “fact” was wrong?
  • What if John Doe of Eastville and John Doe of Westville were not the same man, even though I’ve taken that as fact? Where might John Doe of Eastville have gone, if not to Westville?
  • What if some of the children believed to belong in a family were actually part of a different family? How would that alter conclusions?

Sometimes such thoughts lead nowhere. Other times they lead to breakthroughs.

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Gaps in the Curb

By Daniel Hubbard | May 17, 2015

Just yesterday I was driving home from a presentation and I passed where an aunt of mine once lived. Now you can only guess that people once lived there. The house is gone and nothing has replaced it. The land is covered by grass and a scatter of trees but, on closer inspection, the empty space that remains looks like it ought to have a building on it. I noticed that there were two gaps in the curb where there had once been driveways. Now they would be driveways to nowhere. Clearly they had once led to somewhere where people lived.

A few days earlier I drove my daughter around to look at a place for her to work on a photography project. Her teacher had told her about an old abandoned barn that she could use. When we got there, we found the old farmyard was surrounded by new houses still in the process of being built. The abandoned farmhouse was ringed by a fence and signs that read “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” We couldn’t even see the barn, it might have been too far off the road or it might have been already gone. On the way home we made a sort of game of looking for “ruins.” In an area with lots of new construction, they are few and far between, but we did spot ruined stone pillars that once supported a gate, that blocked access to a private drive that no longer exists, which must have led to a home that is probably long gone.

Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by such things. In first grade I went to a school that had steps outside the schoolyard. They went up to nothing but a fence. My father explained to me that long ago the school had been where the playground was and that long ago when they needed to rebuild the school, they built the new one on top of the old playground, then tore down the old one and put the playground there. Those steps once went up much further and ended not at a fence but at the front door.

These are time’s echoes. They are not all of what was, but they bare witness to it.  They are time’s tidbits, its trail of breadcrumbs. Things left behind. They are things that I like to see because they make me wonder. They are also the things we like to erase because they no longer fit, or perhaps because they make us wonder in what might be an uncomfortable way for some. Do they remind us of a past that no longer is, and, therefore, remind us that there will come a time when we are part of that past that no longer is?

I’ve been translating some Norwegian farm books over the last few days. They are full of those little things that have been remembered and retold for hundreds of years.  One has to wonder what a story of a troll luring a woman to her death at the bottom of a five-hundred-foot-deep lake really represents. Stories like that are, perhaps, hints of what once was, like those gaps in the curb. Anyone who notices those gaps could assume that a house once stood there but only through research, or, in my case, memory, can one know what the house looked like, or who lived there.

So much of what we do in genealogy is like this. We read along looking for those ancient names on the page, those gaps in the curb. Then we stop, question, and seek to fill in the details of the house that once stood where only that gap remains.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part F

By Daniel Hubbard | May 10, 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 archive with papers in boxes to the roof.

B is for box that contains the document with the needed proof.

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

F is for Footnote

“F” could be for “footnote,” those little tidbits of extra information that just might be where the vital information is hiding, or cite a source that is exactly what you need. The footnotes are things we often ignore but that should never go unread.

“F” could be for “find,” which can be a verb or a noun. The verb is what we hope to do. At the end of the day, we hope to be able to look back and know that we have located something important. If it was important enough we might use the noun, and call it a real find.

“F” could be for “fact,” a tricky word to handle. Is it a fact that an ancestor was born on a certain day if the birth registration records the birth on that day? Could the only fact involved actually be that the parents claimed the child was born on that day in order to not be fined for registering the birth too late?

“F” could be for “forget,” a word that is all to important to consider. What has been forgotten? Why has it been forgotten?

“F” could be for “ford,” which reminds us of the importance of travel. In my grandparents day  “Ford” might be the Model-T that was the first car the family owned. In earlier years it would have been that important place where the river was shallow enough to be crossed by foot or horse. Generations ago it would have been the all-important gateway to the other bank and the lands beyond. Today, it might be a place of no importance. When researching the past we need to remember what was important in the past.

Those are all fine words, but, the most important word beginning with “F” must be “Family.” They are the people we are researching, the people we research with and who listen to our stories and they are the people who will inherit our research.

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By Daniel Hubbard | May 3, 2015

Recently, a project of mine ended before it even began. The person who was to be the beneficiary, and from whose memories the project was to begin, only wanted to forget.

It happens, of course, but it’s a sad thought, to be brought up in a way that one only wants to forget. No one should grow up like that. No one should only want to forget.

It’s a sad thought from a genealogical point of view as well. It is the beginning of a dead end. It isn’t just a person forgetting. It’s a family forgetting. The memories of an unhappy childhood will disappear, but so will the connections to generations before. Ancestors who lived long ago will join the unremembered. The present will become disconnected from the past. Perhaps someday those connections can be recreated—that is what genealogists do, but sometimes those connections prove elusive. Even if they can be brought back, something is lost every time we choose to forget. Even those things that, from deep down, and with every right, we wish to be forgotten, will someday leave someone wondering “why?”

Forgetting the dark times means forgetting the overcoming as well.

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The Privilege of Time Travel

By Daniel Hubbard | April 26, 2015

One of the privileges of doing any sort of historical research is the sense of traveling through time. It can be what we normally think of as historical research, or genealogical, or even archeological research.

In genealogy we often need to involve general history in our work. It can give us guidance, both by helping us to understand what was possible and how probable it was. It can give us new avenues to try, or convince us to head in another direction.

Sometimes a form of research a bit out of the ordinary comes along. I was working on a family in Sweden and was asked to try to figure out exactly where their land was located. I found the previous owner in land reform records and those led me to the correct spot on a map from 1835. There were no lakes or streams to guide me to the right spot on a modern map but there were some roads that seemed to have been little changed over the last 180 years. They led me to roughly the right spot, just as they would have almost two centuries ago. Yet something was wrong. Something didn’t quite fit. One could say that there were some things that the modern map had forgotten. Luckily, it turned out that the earth remembered.

Looking carefully at the farmers’ fields in a satellite image revealed the lines of old trackways in the crops. Browned spots amidst the green showed where the soil was thin and held too little water. They showed where an old county lane was hiding under the ground. Those parched crops matched the old map. They showed where there had once been roads. I had traveled in time, and a bit of virtual archeology had helped with genealogy.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part E

By Daniel Hubbard | April 19, 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 aunt, who got you interested in family history.

B is for book, which explained a family mystery.

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

E is for Evidence

“E” could be for “evidence,” which is obvious I hope, yet if you are just starting out, it might not be. Genealogy is, in part, the thrill of the hunt, and the creature we are hunting is named “evidence.”

“E” could be for “epitaph,” those words written in memory of the dead. They might be just whiffs of flowery language, or they might hid a clue.

“E” could be for “error.” Research can go down the wrong path at times. Spotting the errors is the first step in fixing them but, of course, it is only the first step.

“E” could be for “extract,” text from one place quoted in another. The original ought to be the best evidence, but when the original no longer exists, when the “best” evidence loses that title because what is gone can’t be “best,” then an extract becomes manna from heaven.

“E” could be for “Ellis Island,” perhaps the most “genealogical” place in the United States. The place where so many of our ancestors first set foot in a new land. The place where they had to wonder if the clerks and translators and medical examiners would all see fit to allow them in, or would someone keep them out.

Those are all fine words, but, at Ellis Island, those  people were making a transition that we tend to forget, from emigrant to immigrant. From our vantage point we see them as immigrants, but they were also emigrants. They were not just coming to a new place. They were leaving behind their old lives and experiencing all the uncertainty that entails. When I work with clients in Europe, they are not looking for ancestors who arrived, they are looking for the relatives who left.

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Who Did They Think They Were?

By Daniel Hubbard | April 6, 2015

I’m in the planning stages of a new presentation about questions of identity in genealogy. With that in my mind, I found a copy of LAS News (from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The University of Illinois) waiting for me in my mailbox. I flipped to the first article, Thinking Outside the Boxes, and discovered it was about identity questions in the census and the question of ethnic and racial identity.

In early Federal censuses most people are simply numbers, counts of individuals in gender, age and race categories without names, but from 1850 onward, questions about race and ethnicity appear for people enumerated as individuals, not just as numbers in categories. I’ve mostly been concerned with how we reconstruct the identities of people in our past. There are other issues of identity brought to mind by the census. What identity did a person claim for themselves? What identity did the outside world give them? How could people specify that identity?

One can wonder if, when the census was actually enumerated by an enumerator, was a race simply assigned by the enumerator or was the question actually asked and the answer used? In 1850 a free person could be white, black or mulatto according to the census. In 1870 Chinese (meaning east Asian) and American Indian were added as possible answers. A person could be identified as one of these but not more, and there was no official way of specifying any other ethnic or racial identities. The only way to specify any racial mixture of any kind was mulatto, though in 1890 the terms “quadroon” (75% European and 25% African) and “octoroon” (12.5% African and the rest European) were added. How accurately such identities were recorded is something that one can question. That year Japanese was also added as a race. The motivations for recording such information can be questioned, and the categories themselves, no matter what we think of them, seem odd. Clearly racial terms like white and black, are mixed with ethnic terms like Japanese, and single terms for mixed races like octoroon.

Having this question and a restricted set of possible answers tells us something about the times, and they were times that gave us things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from China from 1882 until 1943. The answers may have been related to what was of interest about people, but I suspect had little to do with how they would choose to identify themselves. Yet, within those constraints, people might still have some choice, and as we research we might find the need to be aware of how people might self-identify. Given discrimination, should we be surprised that someone who identified as white in one census, was identified as something else in an earlier census? No we shouldn’t. A child identified as something other than white, might realize later that if they could “pass” they could go farther in life than they could otherwise.

Ethnicity can drift as well. While it often is not explicitly stated, questions about place of birth, parents’ places of birth, language spoken and even surname all carry information about ethnicity and, if someone chose to change their ethnic identity, those answers would need to change. I’ve researched one person who gradually changed all those things over a period of decades, apparently experimenting a bit along the way. As we research, we might find it necessary to consider how a person might chose to identify, how they might be forced to identify, why those identities might be different, and why they might change. We might need to think about what attitudes and cultural and legal forces were present. Then we need to think about how that might affect our research.

Some people want to assert their unique background. Some people want to fit in. Often those are actually the same people in different circumstances or seeing those circumstances from different angles.  Since the disappearance of terms like mulatto from the census, it has been nearly impossible to claim more than one race/ethnicity. Even writing in multiple choices in the space for “other” has resulted in only the first term entered being used.

In 1935 a judge ruled that Mexicans could not become citizens of the United States because they were not white. As one might imagine, many people, who would not have done so otherwise, chose to publicly identify themselves as white after that. There is a long history of trying to fit people into boxes, and preferably only one box at a time per person to keep it simple. That has a difficult time reflecting reality under any circumstances, but when the boxes change or circumstances and situations encourage movement between boxes, don’t be too surprised if your ancestors pop out of an unexpected box.

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Mad Men

By Daniel Hubbard | March 29, 2015

Even if your ancestors never worked on Madison Avenue, some of them may have written an advertisement or two, and put a touch of their personality into their writing.

In 1774 a pair of men took out ads in the Pennsylvania Packet. They didn’t know each other. It was just coincidence that their ads were printed one after the other on page one.

Ad Number 1

The longer ad was the one I was interested in. It was long—unnecessarily long, though it started well. Three thousand acres near Winchester, Virginia, were for sale. There was a description about the different types of land on those acres and what good uses for them might be. There was a sawmill, fed by an “unfailing stream.” There was a site suitable for a gristmill. There was a ten-year rental deal for half the land and the mill that earned the owner £50 of Virginia money every year. It was a long ad but at least there was a point to those opening lines. The description even answered some questions for me in the research for a book. That, though, was only half the ad. The rest consisted of a tirade, the gist of which was, that prospective buyers should not listen to the lies of good-for-nothing neighbors, who thought nothing of casting false disparagement upon his land. He related how he had once been a victim of such neighbors before. He discussed how mean spirited people hide behind pretended neighborliness and false religiosity, only to lie for the sport of it, and how he did not intend to be a victim of such behavior again. Finally, he advised prospective buyers to come see him directly at his home in Winchester “at the sign of William Pitt.”

The second half of that advertisement was certainly an odd way to attract buyers, and an odd use for all that advertising space. It does, however, give some insights into the man’s personality. Even the sign was interesting. William Pitt was immensely popular in the American colonies in the 1760s. Popular enough to get Pittsburgh, and many other places in America, named for him. He was Earl of Chatham, and, as Prime Minister, was responsible for the strategy that drove France from North America at the end of the French and Indian War.

Ad Number 2

In contrast, the other ad was rather short and much more to the point. Certain unspecified lands along the Ohio River were to be divided into lots and sold to interested parties. There was little information. Not even the total amount of land was specified. If you were to judge by the size of the ad, it would seem to be the least important of the two. The name of the man who wrote the ad caught my eye, though. It was George Washington. Not George Washington Smith, George Washington Davis, or some such name, which was my initial reaction. It was the George Washington, but it was a few years before Americans would be named for him by the hundreds, a few years before his image would start to replace William Pitt on signs across America. In 1774 he was not yet President George Washington, or General George Washington. He was still a few months away from being George Washington, Delegate to the First Continental Congress. As far as I’ve been able to tell, his small, nondescript advertisement announced the availability for purchase of land totaling about 60,000 acres. My two “Mad Men” were clearly very different.


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Strix Noctua

By Daniel Hubbard | March 21, 2015

night owl by audubon

Strix Noctua, The Little Night Owl by Audubon

A few years ago I proposed that the pushmi-pullyu should be the official mascot of genealogy. There is something that happens to me over and over again, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. In its honor, I’ve delayed this post until night has fallen. It has also made me realize that genealogy also needs an official bird, and I think I know what it should be.

There is something about the approach of bedtime that brings discovery. The more I tell myself that it is time to shutdown for the night, the more likely I am to discover something really exciting, something that means I can’t go to bed just yet. I have to make notes. I have to see how this changes things. New ideas start raining down, they need to be checked before they are forgotten. Is it just a coincidence? Is it just the way that many of us are? I found some quotes that seem to summarize some of the reasons for this strange phenomenon.

How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon.
—Dr. Seuss

Maybe the ever-wise Dr. Seuss had part of the solution. Research is absorbing. It is so tempting to just keep going, not realizing how late it has become. Maybe that big late-night discovery is like that old joke- “Where did you find it?” “The last place I looked.” Yep, if you keep going until you find something big, it just might get late.

Research is the name given the crystal formed when the night’s worry is added to the day’s sweat.
—Martin H. Fischer

I’m not sure about the worry part of this quote, I’d substitute the word “creativity,” but maybe the reason that the discoveries seem so often to come late, is that they come after a whole day’s diligent preparation. Nothing surprising about that. Late night discoveries aren’t isolated, effortless epiphanies. They come after hours of careful preparation and study.

Night time is really the best time to work. All the ideas are there to be yours because everyone else is asleep.
—Catherine O’Hara

Ah yes, the later it becomes, the fewer the distractions. No more odd jobs to do. No more plumbers to call. The kids are in bed. The ideas are all ours.

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The night can be the poets muse. Sometimes research is all logic and data. The night seems to bring out different patterns of thought, more, or at least differently, poetic than the day. In the end, one still needs the straight logical lines and the data they connect, but sometimes a little nighttime wondering, curving off in different directions, can lead to those logical connections. At night we think just a bit differently.

It is one of life’s bitterest truths that bedtime so often arrives just when things are really getting interesting.
—Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket encapsulated much of what I remember about bedtime from when I was a kid. Perhaps those old habits die hard. It may be only my personal preference, but I don’t think I would be alone in thinking that the night owl ought to be the official bird of genealogy.

When the world is itself draped in the mantle of night, the mirror of the mind is like the sky in which thoughts twinkle like stars.
―Khushwant Singh

So, fellow genealogical night owls (strix noctua genealogicus?), may those thoughts twinkle like stars.

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