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Backwards and Forwards

By Daniel Hubbard | July 12, 2015

As I gradually get back to normal after the last few months (see Fading & Passing), I thought I would return to my regular weekly posts, though perhaps in a shorter format for a while.

Genealogy is done backwards in time, from known to unknown. That is the way we ought to research, starting from a firm foundation and testing the surrounding ground for pitfalls. Our research doesn’t follow a solid line. It is dashed. We simply cannot know about every moment of every life we research. There are always gaps as we step backwards in time. It is natural to wonder if all is right or if we missed discovering a pitfall because we happened to step over it.

History, of course, unfolds forward in time. Thinking about our results forward in time gives a new perspective on what seemed obvious as we stepped our way back. It is obvious that when tracing a married couple backwards, that they lived in roughly the same place before they married. After all, they met somehow. Find a couple after their marriage, and find their respective families before their marriage, and it may seem very sure that we have the right people. Think about it forward. Retrace those steps. Follow as their immigrant parents start from different places at different times, cross the ocean, and then find new traces of them in the New World as neighbors. It seems inevitable when working in one direction, of course it was that way, and yet it is a thrill when thinking in the other direction, when working forward, when it is far from a given that two people will end up in the same place, at the same time, and find them there, where you hadn’t seen them before. That is an epiphany.

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By Daniel Hubbard | June 28, 2015

I took another week off from blogging last week against my instincts, but it felt like the thing to do. My father’s fading came to an end. He passed away just before Father’s Day. I had thought I would have one last Father’s Day with him, but that was not to be. Of course, even if he had been aware of a visit, I know that he wouldn’t have remembered it, and even if he had remembered, he wouldn’t live long enough to think back upon it fondly. Some of the joy of celebrations comes from their transience, the fact that they can’t go on forever. Ironically part of the joy of transience comes with the time to remember. My father had no memory and as it turns out, no time either. It does remind me though that part of the joy of life, our own life, and the joy we find in others’ lives, comes from the fact that we know they cannot last.

I’d like to go back to a time to a few years ago, when my father still had memories and got some happiness from telling them to me.

March 6, 2011 Taking Walks with the Census Taker and my Dad

May 30, 2011 Interview with Dad

and March of this year, when his memory was fading but still good enough to know that there were things, like tuberculosis, that he did not want to remember.

Bye Dad…

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By Daniel Hubbard | June 14, 2015

It had been a long time since I have missed my regular weekly post, if I ever have, but last week I missed. There is a reason. Life, or rather the end of life, takes priority. Four and a half years ago, my father realized that his memory was just starting to fade and wrote his memories down before it was too late. Now, his memory is nearly gone, perhaps totally gone. Three days ago, I had what has become a typical conversation with him. He could not remember where he was or who was the nurse’s aid in his hospital room. He thanked me for visiting and was shocked when I mentioned that it was my fourth visit that day, but moments later he described a barn that his sister and brother-in-law had owned decades ago. I knew what he was talking about. Some of my childhood memories are of that barn. He asked a question he’d asked already ten times in the last hour then said that he’d be rich if he had a dime for every time he asked that question. He remembered forgetting.

That is the way it has been. One moment he couldn’t remember that his siblings have all passed away, the next moment he would remember an obscure and verifiable fact or mention how proud his father would be to know that my family and I live in the house that he built. A moment later he asked me where I lived. He looked at the whiteboard on the opposite wall, noticed the date and realized that he had just had a birthday. Yes, Dad, you have lived a long time. The next morning he recognized a niece who visited and called her by name. A bit later he knew that my mother and my sister entered the room. When I entered about half an hour later, he clearly knew that someone entered the room and I think he knew that it was me. I can’t be sure that he has been aware of my visits since.

A few weeks ago, after his last trip to the emergency room, he was tested by an occupational therapist. His memory was confirmed to be virtually gone, but his reasoning was still intact. He could count backwards from 100 by sevens faster than the therapist, but he couldn’t remember where he lived—functioning reason without the ability to remember what to reason about.

Preserving memories and reconstructing pasts is what I do. I have the nearly forty typed pages of his memories sitting on the desk next to me. How strange that I have them and he no longer does. I have my memories of him too, but soon, perhaps very soon, he will be gone. He cannot remember his past. His future has nearly run out.

Toward the end of a meeting with the hospice nurse two days ago, I got a message from my son. He had already pitched the first inning of his first playoff game. Would I be there soon? The nurse said something about the split we live with at times like these and said that I needed to go. So Dad, there is the future. It just sent me a text.

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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-

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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