By Daniel Hubbard | February 24, 2013
What does family history teach us? What do we learn from it? One thing that it can do is to teach us about life in ways we find hard to dismiss.
There are many hypotheses about why people love fiction. Many of those ideas probably contribute to the full answer. Fiction can be an escape from the daily grind or boost our moods with laughter. Another hypothesis is that we use fiction to learn about life without actually doing or experiencing the embarrassing, emotionally painful, socially unacceptable, dangerous, foolish, overly-ambitious and perhaps even lethal things that people do in fiction. That is almost certainly part of fiction’s role. It lets us experience a simulation of reality that neither traumatizes or wounds. It gives our unconscious minds a safe way to learn life’s lessons. Yet, it is also a role that people can dismiss if they try. “It’s just a story,” is a common sentiment. History can read like fiction but it cannot be dismissed that way. It happened.
Anthropology may not be fascinating reading for most but it does present us with idea’s about human culture. Of course, the lessons it holds can be dismissed because we tend to see humanity in a fragmented way. You can say “that’s them over ‘there,’ it isn’t us over ‘here.’ ” Family history is, by definition, “us.” That is the whole point. There is that innate connection to the past that cannot be so simply dismissed.
By doing the research ourselves, we also become inoculated against easy dismissal. Sometimes our emotional investment in our research can lead to problems. It can blind us to possible solutions to problems and tilt us toward one of many possible answers without sufficient evidence. That emotional involvement can also be a positive force. The research has been done. We’ve poured time and effort into it. When our research reveals for us a lesson that we might dismiss as unrealistic or irrelevant in fiction, or just “them” in another culture, that investment in the result says to us—
“You can’t dismiss this. It really happened. It is your ancestry. It is part of you.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | February 17, 2013
Any documents that can show names, dates and places can be used for genealogy. Some may provide better genealogical evidence than others but where there are names, dates and places there is possibility.
I’m now staring at one less used document type, mortgage papers. The man I’m investigating loaned some money. It gives me nothing of genealogical value, at least not yet. It doesn’t solve my problem but I’ve saved it anyway.
The man who made the loan was a merchant. Had I not known that already, I might now be very puzzled by the terms of repayment. Most mortgages are to be repaid with money. Not this mortgage. This was to be repaid in shoes—installments of hundreds of dollars worth of shoes. Shoes that were specified to be valued at fifty cents below the shoemaker’s retail price. It would seem that guaranteed that the shoes were not over-valued. The shoemaker would have had to hurt his own sales by over-pricing his own shoes to accomplish that. The shoemaker would also not be able to undercut the value of the shoes by selling shoes below the value of the shoes in the repayment.
This deal also tells us something of the scale of our merchant’s business. He was apparently sure that he could transport and sell a few hundred dollars worth of shoes every year. It also tells us something of the scale of the shoemaker’s business. It hasn’t helped me connect any family members but it does tell me a little family history.
The magnetism in the post title comes from the other interesting thing about this mortgage. Like most mortgages, the land is specified. Unlike any other description of land that I’ve read, this mortgage defines the meaning of “north.” Normally, north would be geographic north, the direction of the north pole, spotted using the North Star. In this case it was to be “as the magnetic needle pointed…” Magnetic north and geographic north are not the same thing. They are close or “the magnetic needle,” that is the compass, would not be so useful.
There is another interesting thing, both about this mortgage and about magnetic north. Magnetic north is not constant. The Earth’s magnetic poles move. How fast they move changes. At the moment the north magnetic pole is moving at a rate of tens of miles per year. Two hundred years ago, when this mortgage was made, the movement was much slower, but it was moving. That is where the mortgage comes back into the story. The full line of text that specifies the meaning of “north” is “as the magnetic needle pointed in the year 1788.” That was three decades before the mortgage was written. Unfortunately, there is no description of how that direction was to be determined. Obviously, a compass couldn’t do it.
I’ve tried to find when it was first realized that magnetic north moved over time. Some claim that this was realized in 1831 but that is the year that explorers first reached the magnetic north pole, the place where a compass needle points straight down. Having found that point is not a requirement for realizing that the direction of magnetic north was not the same from year to year. Now we can see from looking through records that the information needed to make the realization was there for several centuries, but when it was discovered isn’t the same thing. It seems that the motion of the north magnetic pole was first noticed in the 17th century as people mapped the difference between magnetic north and geographic north from different places—important information when navigating by compass. After a while it became apparent that the maps lost accuracy with time.
By the early 19th century when the mortgage was made it had been known for over a century that the magnetic poles move but it was probably not a widely recognized fact. Who knew that the magnetic poles moved and thought that accounting for thirty years of drift would be important for this little tract of land? How did they expect that accounting to be made? Why was the land defined using magnetic and not geographic north in the first place? Those things may just need to remain mysteries.
By Daniel Hubbard | February 10, 2013
Do you have any ancestors that seem to be the end of the line? Forebears that resist every effort to discover enough to go back any further? Try working on someone else. No, I don’t mean give up. I mean work on someone who seems suspicious, someone who seems to be associated with your ancestor. People don’t live in vacuums. They have relatives, friends, and neighbors. They have business partners. They hire farmhands. They have executors, administrators, lawyers and ministers. Who were those shadowy figures and from where did they come?
Today, I have a feeling that one of my favorite categories of such people ought to be sponsors. Not the kind of sponsors that try to sell you car insurance during a Super Bowl time out. No, I mean the kind of sponsor whose name gets added to a baptismal record. I especially mean the kind of person who sponsors one of your ancestor’s children. Even better if one of his or her children was also sponsored by your ancestor. That is the kind of sponsor that would seem to be truly closely associated with your problem person.
I’m working on a project at the moment where that kind of sponsor has appeared. Both the husband and the wife are currently the end of the line. They moved to a place where the records aren’t very good on a few points and they came from a place where the records are very difficult. Did I mention that, with only slight exaggeration, both of them have first and last names that are common enough that trying to find them in earlier records isn’t so much like looking for a needle in a haystack as like looking for hay in a haystack? You will find hay alright but is it the right hay?
That is where my sponsor just might come in. He sponsored one of my couple’s children. The father returned the favor. To make it even better, the sponsor’s surname was the wife’s maiden name. He was just a few years different from her in age. One can’t jump to conclusions but he might be her brother. Of course, if this sponsor has the same surname as the wife, that means that he has an ultra common surname. So why might he help? Because, bless his soul, his given name is Malachi. What a wonderful name, Malachi. It will still take some serious work but Malachi might soon be my favorite name.
So, when all seems lost, listen to that word from their sponsors.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | February 3, 2013
Do you ever read compiled genealogies? Your answer is probably “yes” and if it isn’t, it probably should be. Part of doing research is understanding what has already been done.
Once you know what has been done the next step is to figure out if it has been done right. The next step is not to believe everything you read.
Some compiled genealogies will be accurate, honest about what is not clear, explain conclusions and cite their sources. Many will not. They will be questionable, state hypotheses as if they had been proven, make statements that might be correct but that are less than obvious and not supported by evidence or logic.
Compiled genealogies are not reality but they are at least attempts to map reality. Like following a real road map, you can use the map to help you find your way but you still need to look out the windows and rely on reality as you drive.
Even with all the caveats about compiled genealogies, they often are very useful. Sometimes they will contain facsimiles of records, other times they will cite their sources and make it easier for you to find them and confirm them.
Sometimes the genealogy will not tell you the origin of the information. If it is information worth understanding, that is when the fun begins. Sometimes the information itself gives you hints about the source.
Daughters who seem to have all married men with surnames but without given names? That smells like the father’s probate records have been found. Either his will or a list of heirs may give all the married daughters by their full married names. If you didn’t know that there were probate records, that is a handy clue to have. If you had looked but not found them, there is nothing to aid persistence like a fresh reason to believe that it will pay off.
Is a name consistently spelled differently from the way you have found it? It may mean that the author relied on only a source or two for the information about that person and the source that gave them the spelling is one that you have not yet seen. These small discrepancies can be clues.
Is it clear that the author has confused two people? Time to ask yourself what that means about the documents that the author couldn’t have seen. He couldn’t have seen John Doe’s will that names his nephew, John Doe. She couldn’t have found the census that has John Q. Public a few lines away from his cousin John K. Public. Then ask yourself what more subtle problems will appear in the author’s work without that document—things in their writing that might lead you astray otherwise. You can also ask yourself how the author knew a few things that you know only from the source that the author never saw. Is there an indication of a source that you haven’t seen?
Does the author have very different things to say about a family than what you have? Someone is wrong. Be open minded about who that is. If you have a good deal of documentation to back you up and the author doesn’t cite a single source, be wary but perhaps it would be a good idea to try to understand where the author went astray. You just might learn something. Remember too that just because you figure out why the author is wrong, it doesn’t prove that you are 100% right.
This sort of metagenealogy can be a fun mental exercise in its own right but it isn’t the same as actually getting your hands on the documents themselves and understanding what they have to tell you. It can be fun to stare at a map and plan a vacation route but that isn’t the end point. As fun as map staring can be, you still need to hop in the car and go see the sites for yourself.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | January 27, 2013
Duckument* (n) – papers that reveal a terrible error. Origin- derived from the Cold War civil defense phrase “duck and cover” combined with the word document. Genealogists encountering a duckument are advised to hide beneath their desks until they come to terms with the duckument’s implications.
Classification of Duckuments
Duckuments are found in three types-
- The duckuments you should be thankful for because though they may undo quite a bit of work, they turn incorrect results into correct results. Never a bad thing.
- The duckuments that are interesting but erroneous. There is nothing to keep you on your genealogical toes than getting buzzed by a low flying duckument.
- The duckuments that are typically unsourced bits of compiled nonsense given to you at a family reunion by your Uncle Ned who thinks that you “ought to look into it.” You should have done a “duck and cover” as soon as you saw Uncle Ned coming.
I’m working on a new talk about an ancestor of mine. It has reminded me of a duckument from years ago that turned out to be of the second kind.
It all started with a family story. Almost surprisingly that story turned out to be understated. The truth was more unusual than what had been handed down. It took years to piece together the specifics and add the underlying history. Then the duckument appeared and all that research started to fall apart. Time to stop ducking and start thinking. There were some key signs that this was a duckument of the second kind.
First, this wasn’t a duckument of the third kind. It was an official ledger produced by the United States Army. It wasn’t something I could fix by hiding from Uncle Ned until the reunion was over then changing my email address.
Second, the journey that research had uncovered was an ordeal for all involved. This ledger, when read carefully, seemed to indicate that my ancestor was not on this journey and yet ended up at the same place unaided, having traveled twice as fast as the others and arrived during the onset of winter. That might even make a better story if it didn’t seem-
- an unlikely thing for a soldier to be told to do by the army,
- physically impossible,
- insane—his wife, who went along, would have just given birth before they departed.
Third, even though this was an official document, it was based on other documents. It wasn’t made at the time by someone who knew the particulars. It was made a bit after the fact, by a clerk who would not have known anything except what was on the papers he was trying to summarize and he was trying to summarize a lot of papers about many people. It needed to be taken seriously but it could easily prove fallible.
It did prove fallible. It also led me in an interesting direction. Among the summarized documents had to have been muster rolls. I hadn’t found them for a crucial period. I didn’t know if they had ever existed. I had muster rolls before departure and for a bit after arrival. Time to try again. When found, the muster rolls at the National Archives told the story that had seemed the only possibility before the duckument arrived, the story that had been pieced together over the years. They showed my ancestor at points along the way when I thought that he should be there. The ledger was wrong. A clerk had made a mistake.
Some rules for the proper handling of duckuments-
- Take a deep breath. Whatever type of duckument you have on your hands, it is what it is and you need to deal with it.
- You have already pieced information together. Be open to it being disproved but also realize the duckument could be wrong. Don’t jump to any conclusions one way or the other.
- Ask yourself if the duckument implies things that don’t seem possible. Ancestors didn’t live in a world where physical laws broke down and Alice in Wonderland weirdness was common.
- Ask if the duckument is sufficiently trustworthy that it really does undo a chunk of your research. It might be that trustworthy but it might be less trustworthy than your original impression. Think about its origins and how it was produced.
- Consider if the duckument makes sense of things that seemed odd before.
- Make sure that the duckument is really describing your ancestor.
*A just-made-up word, any similarity to a previously invented word is purely coincidental.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | January 20, 2013
When I started being interested in my family history one of the things my aunt taught me was that sometimes family stories turn out to be wrong. It was an easy lesson for her to teach. The family story that had most fascinated me was something that she proved to be untrue.
That story had what it took to be remembered—a robbery, a murder and a mystery. The robbed items, turned out to have been lost. There was no murder. Without those two things there was no mystery either. That doesn’t mean that the story has no value. It is still a good story but that isn’t my point. The “murdered” man really did die and he died when the story said that he did. That story wasn’t true but it wasn’t 100% false either. It had a grain of truth. The grain was even a useful grain.
The Useful Grain
The useful grain is my point. A story can seem odd, exaggerated or fabricated, and the originator may have been intoxicated but that doesn’t mean that it must be useless. Twice when starting projects I’ve been told stories about name changes that the storyteller didn’t really believe. The stories hung together about as well as two Monty Python routines connected by “And now for something completely different” but in the end, they made the difference. Those name changes, or at least something very, very close, had actually occurred. Without the information preserved in the family story, would the necessary connection have been made?
Those stories had two important functions. They made it possible to connect two different names to one man. They allowed the paper trails to be found from what would have been needle-in-a-haystack problems. Genealogy relies on identity. These stories gave starting points for testing if two different identities could actually be the same individual.
The other important function was to connect those individuals to the families. If you imagine trying to map underground water pipes, you might try some different strategies. You might criss-cross the ground with a metal detector and map the points where the detector found metal. Some of those points would seem to form lines on the map, lines you can conclude are the pipes. Those points are like documents. You can’t be totally sure they fit together but with enough work you can get very close. You find your documents string together to form a coherent picture of individuals and their relationships. Another way you might try to map the pipes only works if you have access to the ends of the pipes. You put dye in at one end and check to see where the dye comes out. Because the stories were preserved within families, they work something like that dye. They flowed from their origins to living family members. The analogy isn’t perfect. Occasionally, stories jump to places that they could never reach if they were like dye in a pipe but more often than not they stay within the family pipe, even getting diluted like the dye in the water. So those stories gave independent reason to believe the connections found in the paper trail. If there had been no connection, if a mistake had been made, the story would probably not have flowed.
Another set of stories I was given included a mention of two poor immigrants who met while employed by someone very wealthy. It could have been a once true story on its way to becoming a retelling of Cinderella. It might have been that it had only gotten as far as Cinderella marrying the prince’s servant and in a generation or two, Cinderella would be marrying the prince, as she should in any proper fairy tale.
But not so fast. I found a suspicious girl. She was one of many with the right name. So how could I tell if she was the right one? Her age and origin fit. She was living one town over from where the story placed her. Not bad. What sealed the deal was the mention of the word “wealth” in the story. It wasn’t an exaggeration. It was an understatement. My eyes fixed on the name Rockefeller. This immigrant girl was working for John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man on the planet and often regarded as the wealthiest man who has ever lived. The case of that girl’s identity would seem to be closed, thanks to that story.
Odd stories can be misleading. They can make the truth seem disappointing. Nevertheless, they can be worth remembering. You never know when a murder that never happened, a crazy change of name or a Rockefeller might come in handy.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | January 16, 2013
There is a facet of research that nags at me every so often. The other day was one of those days.
Sometimes when we find something, we know exactly what it means. We can almost immediately claim that we understand it fairly well and if we are lucky and thinking clearly, we won’t need to eat those words very often. There are times, though, when my reaction to a document is a thought like, “This would be interesting if A or B is true.” It then becomes time to look for evidence for A and B. There might be no clear evidence for either. Perhaps it becomes apparent that if several other things are correct and there is no negative evidence to be found, then A is almost certainly true. A question about the relevance of a single document has branched, twisted, turned and contorted. It may be work toward a family tree but it has resulted in a grapevine of documents all leading back to that earlier find but without any clear interpretation.
By the time my thoughts return to that in initial document, the whole base of knowledge that I used to find it has changed. The direction of the research may have changed. And I still need to ask, “Is this document worth saving and recording citation information and filing and documenting the rationale that caused me to save it or is it too unlikely that it fits?” Often the answer is “maybe.”
Organizing in a Vacuum
If it is something that is worth saving, there is the question of how one should organize such information. Things are often organized by use. When the use is unknown, that scheme either fails or misleads. Woe be it to the genealogist who organizes their mysterious documents by creating shadowy people in their database.
With a large enough amount of data, organization isn’t a trivial problem either. It is a philosophical question whether or not information that can’t be found still qualifies as information. The word information seems to imply useability. Practically speaking, information that is so poorly organized that it can’t be found is the same thing as no information at all. All those mysterious little things that we pick up as we hunt need to be organized or they can never be of any use.
Unless you have infinite time, an infinite filing cabinet, an infinite hard drive and a way to organize it all, the documents and information you choose to keep matter. Keep too much and you spend time organizing the uninteresting and preparing for citations you will never make. You lose track of the interesting in all the rest. Keep too little and you miss important clues and fail to make connections. The more efficiently information can be gathered and organized the more you can keep and really use.
Welcome to No-Man’s-Land
Sometimes we can move quickly from document to person. A single document can take us back another generation. That step may turn out to be wrong but at the time of discovery, it was so overwhelmingly likely that hypothesizing its correctness then testing the hypothesis was the logical way to proceed. Other times that next step will be so perplexing that it is obviously a research project on its own. Then there is the case at hand, the no-man’s-land between near certainty and total mystery. It is a place that can shift quickly and unpredictably. While in that no-man’s-land there is always the possibility that something will quickly turn up to clarify yet at the same time there will be the growing suspicion that this particular problem will not go away easily.
Working in no-man’s-land is never easy. We don’t see either clear progress or a clear problem. Either of those can be a source for organizing work but neither is actually present. Learning more is obviously the only way to go but we need to do it without that context of a clear set of people and relationships or a clear and focused problem.
I like to put a folder called “Shoebox” or some such imprecise name in the most precise place it can be. You want the place you store such things to be imprecise rather than misleadingly precise or precisely wrong. The subtle part about working in no-man’s-land is avoiding organizing things based on unwarranted, subconscious assumptions. Anyone stuck on their line back from great-grandpa Shoebox should probably pick a different folder name.
By Daniel Hubbard | January 6, 2013
This is, even now, not an easy post to write. When I wrote a genealogical obituary for my Aunt Melva, I was saddened but not surprised that her time had come. No one expected my father-in-law to be proclaimed terminally ill or that he would be gone so fast. Our youngest daughter had traveled to Sweden to visit just this passed summer. He had been feeling under the weather back then then but nothing too serious. Even when he went into the hospital a few weeks ago, we thought it was just a matter of figuring out the problem. I chatted with him often over Skype. On Christmas Eve he passed away.
This has never been a blog about me personally, so I won’t go into any of the many things losing him has meant. On the other hand, this is a blog about genealogy and my father-in-law meant a great deal to me in that way.
One of the many things that he did in his life was to work with IT. It seems like a long time ago that he told me about a new type of program that he was using, a genealogy database. Soon afterward he gave me my first copy of Reunion so that we could go through his research together.
When I started to do my own research in Swedish records, he helped me to understand the obscure terms and taught me to decipher the Gothic script. The heart of Swedish genealogy is the church records. My father-in-law had a degree in theology and an interest in church history that made him the perfect teacher.
Nevertheless, genealogy was not his main passion for the past. That was medieval art. One of the last things that I helped him with was to read through a contract with Princeton University before he signed it. His collection of photographs of the medieval art found in Swedish churches is now The Lars-Olof Albertson Database of Swedish Art, a part of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art. Photographing, cataloging and even writing the database software to display those artworks was his passion. Perhaps that is part of the reason we connected so well—the desire to combine the long ago with the most modern tools. The past that he was most interested in just happens to be one step beyond what most genealogists can access.
For personal reasons, I have a favorite from among his church photographs. When my family and I were still living south of Stockholm he came to visit us and we headed just a bit north to the town of Täby. He wanted to photograph the church and I went along to take a look and help a bit with his lighting equipment. He did most of his photography further south and so this was a rare opportunity for me. Among the images painted onto those walls, is one that inspired the director Ingmar Bergman to create the iconic scene of a knight playing chess with Death. I wanted to see that image and I’m glad that I got to help photograph it. I see now that I even ended up in one of the photos from that day, sitting in a pew under the frescoes of the vaulted roof, still wearing my bright blue rain jacket.
When I was told that he would soon be gone, many things went through my head. Eventually, I remembered that long ago, just in case something happened to him, he had made me co-administrator of his genealogy database. He had put it online on a private part of his web server. I checked that I still knew how to log in before it was too late to get help. Then I downloaded it all to make sure that the latest information was preserved. I said good-bye in far more personal ways but perhaps that is how the genealogist in me bid farewell.
In closing, I will try to be less personal and draw some lessons.
- Talk with your relatives. You never know when it will be too late.
- Learn from people who have interests and expertise that borders on genealogy. They might not understand why you care but what can be mysterious for us might be commonplace for them.
By Daniel Hubbard | December 30, 2012
Last year I left seriousness behind in a parody post for Christmas Eve. This year’s holiday post is a bit of a parody too but I was in a more serious mood while writing it and it came out much less silly. I could almost imagine singing this. So with apologies to the great Robert Burns-
The Genealogist’s Auld Lang Syne
Should auld relations be forgot,
and simply left behind?
Should auld relations be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
We’ll find those tattered records yet,
for auld lang syne.
And you will find great-grandpa soon,
and surely I’ll find mine,
We’ll stand at Ellis Island yet,
for auld lang syne.
We two have sought among the tomes,
and sifted clues so fine ;
But we’ve squandered just as many hints,
since auld lang syne.
We two have wandered ‘twixt the graves,
from morn to past our time,
And read these many a weathered stone,
for auld lang syne.
And here’s my tale of bygone days,
and give us a tale o’ thine!
We’ll ponder all their myst’ries, dear,
for auld lang syne.
“Auld lang syne” means “old long since” or, less literally but more meaningfully, “bygone days.” Happy New Year and good luck with your “auld lang syne.”Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | December 23, 2012
Once again the world has failed to end on schedule. Now I guess I’d better write a blog post.
I love calendars, I’m not equally fond of the end of the world. I love using calendar peculiarities to solve genealogical problems, I don’t like the thought of my data being engulfed by a sea of fire or whatever the apocalypse du jour happens to be. Where the idea that a calendar cycle coming to an end would signal the end of the world isn’t something that I’m really clear on. I suppose it starts with the impression that the calendar that we use just seems to run on and on implying that perhaps we were not clever enough to figure out when it would end and after which we wouldn’t need to track time any longer. That another calendar does not seem to do that must mean that they (the Maya) had some secret knowledge. Of course we have calendar cycles within our calendar as well. They just don’t seem so mystical to us.
I won’t predict the end of the world based on the ominous sounding “weekend” but we shouldn’t be so surprised by calendar cycles when we experience one every seven days. Nor is the impeding need to change our 2012 calendars for 2013 calendars particularly worrying. We have a leap year almost every four years without unease. If you study the workings of our calendar you will also learn that we have a 400 year cycle of skipped leap years. It is all fascinating and it is all useful knowledge for understanding how our ancestors viewed time and recorded time but not so good for predicting the end of the world.
Apple Picking at the Apocalypse
Have you ever thought about how our ancestors experienced predictions of the end of the world? That thought popped into my head a few days ago as the latest end approached. I love to connect the branches of people’s ancestry to the little branches of history. In my own family I happen to have a little information on it too. Back in the 1840s, a sect known as the Millerites believed that the end would come soon. First sometime between March of 1843 and March of 1844. When nothing happened, the date April 18, 1844 was considered. The appointed day came and went and a new date, October 22, 1844, was settled upon. Some Millerites decided not to waste their time with a harvest that they would never need to consume. That is where my family’s connection to the end of the world appears. the Rev. John Walborn of Middletown, Pennsylvania had two apple trees full of fruit just waiting to be picked but he saw no reason to bother. My distant relative, Rev. Walborn’s neighbor Michael Brestle, offered to pick the apples if Walborn let him keep half for his efforts. Walborn replied “No, you shall do no such thing; gather them and keep them all. I shall not want them, neither will you.” Michael picked 8 bushels of apples October 21 and lived to enjoy them.
« Previous Entries Next Entries » Twitter It!