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Not Omniscient

By Daniel Hubbard | January 19, 2014

Last week after a presentation one of the audience members came up to the front to say hello. She said that after hearing my introduction she had to tell me that she had been a physicist in the 1950s and that she understood the connection between being a physicist and being a genealogist. She added that in her experience, people didn’t really get that. I thanked her and agreed that I always needed to explain that transition. (I also made a mental note that I was in the presence of someone who had broken through a glass ceiling that was certainly much stronger then than it is now—very cool).

My normal explanation of the transition revolves around how it takes time to develop the mindset that research requires. Turning data every which way and really analyzing it does not come naturally either and must be learned. Learning that everything exists within a context and that framework needs to be understood before new data and new hypothesis can be processed is another task. Many years of physics does that.

The Opposite of Omniscience*

Today as I wrote a client report, I found myself suddenly hitting the back arrow to add a few words without really thinking about why. It was a reflex that had taken over. I’ve hit the back arrow for the same reason before but this time I stopped to think about why. I had written something along the lines of “there is no evidence,” then moved back with the cursor to the point between “no” and “evidence” and added the word “known.” Sometimes the phrase “no evidence” can be appropriate. It was not in what I was typing. The research was still very sketchy, the main characters very hazy. The fact that I needed to express was not that evidence does not exist in an absolute sense. Rather the fact is that nothing has yet been found. That only might indicate that there is nothing to find. It can be an important distinction. A researcher can know enough to consider something proven or disproven but the researcher is never omniscient. A researcher must state not just what has been done and what has been learned but also the possibilities for error and the sources of uncertainty. In my years as a physicist, much time was spent deriving error margins for data and calculations. It is not the most exciting of tasks but it is a very important one. Do it enough and it becomes a life lesson.

*When I started to think about writing this post, I tried to think of a good antonym for “omniscient.” The more I thought, the more I wondered if there is one. My thesaurus wasn’t much help. Google turned up some interesting discussions of what the antonym might be. Many suggestions were along the line of “ignorant.” Omniscient though, is an absolute. Its opposite might be the opposing absolute but it might also be anything in between, anything not absolute. Research can start with near ignorance and progress to knowledge but never to omniscience. Research works its way from one type of antonym to the other.

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Records that Are Something More

By Daniel Hubbard | January 12, 2014

As genealogists we mine records for information. Sometimes that is how we see records—as information mines. There is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Data about our ancestors is what we need to rediscover the past and we extract it from records.

It is important though to go beyond those specifics that the records give us about select people. Who else is mentioned in the record? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the record? Where did the information originate? How long after the fact was each bit of data recorded? Does the information mean what we think it does or have words shifted in meaning or were there special instructions to the creator of the record that would alter our appraisal if we knew them? We also have to think about the historical context of the record. Why was it made? What laws governed its creation?

Deeper Interactions

There can be more to our interaction with a document that the simple extraction of data and analysis of context. Those are wholly rational activities. A document can stir emotions as well. Often we feel a sense of reverence for a record. A sense of awe will come over just about any genealogist who comes in contact with a long sought document. Even a scan of a document can have that effect if it suddenly solves a mystery.

There are times though when feelings of awe might be tempered by the context of the document. Slave manifests and prison camp death lists conjure up other feelings. This week, for some client research, I used a type of record that I had not used before—official late 19th century registers of Jewish births. I have not yet found specifically why these  separate Jewish registers were kept but one can wonder. The timing, and the fact that I am reading the records in German, leaves me wondering as well about the use they might have been put a generation later. Yet, with whatever mixed feelings come with some documents, they still bear the names of ancestors. They still contain the voices of the past.


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A Place is not Just a Place

By Daniel Hubbard | January 5, 2014

One of the thoughts that occurs to me regularly is how tricky the word “place” can be. We use it without really thinking about what lies underneath. It seems like such a simple concept. I’m in one place as I write. You are in another as you read. Those places have names. They have latitudes and they have longitudes. Surely those things specify a place with all the precision that one could possibly want. Nevertheless, I don’t think that they do.

I ponder this every time that I think about how I work and how I organize. It seems to me that we can mean at least three things when we use the word “place.” We think of a place as having some important properties. A place generally has a name. It can be found at a specific location. In genealogy we are well aware that the place in question will also sit somewhere within a jurisdictional hierarchy. The trouble is, none of those ways of thinking about places really work.

The Concept of Place

At least when I think of a place with genealogy in mind, what I think of is the smallest locality that makes sense. Addresses are usually unknown or, far enough back, didn’t even exist. What that smallest locality would be depends on the region. It might be a town, township or townland. It might be a parish, county or hundred. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that it is as the most specific that anyone is likely to be when asked “Where are you from?” If you could go back in time and ask you ancestors that question, the answer would be the name that corresponds to the place.

So isn’t knowing the name the same as knowing the place? How would your ancestor that was born in New Amsterdam and died in New York in the house of his birth answer that question? If an ancestor born in Poontoosuc answered that question with “Pittsfield,” would you tell her that she was wrong just because the name had changed?

Places change name all the time yet we still think of them as the same place. Our concept of place may include the place’s name but when push comes to shove, the concept of place goes beyond the name. When recording a place, we have little choice but to record the name and yet multiple names may all indicate the same place in ways that won’t always be clear to the reader or to the software where we make our record.

Jurisdictional Place

When genealogists write down the name of a place, we should write down the whole jurisdictional path from village to nation. To one way of thinking, a different path means a different place. My database records a new place if the chain of jurisdictions changes.

Recording that hierarchy is important, it helps us to avoid ambiguities. Confusing Manhattan in New York with Manhattan in Kansas would not be good. Recording that chain also helps us to know where records might be located because each level of the hierarchy has the potential to create useful records. Do those changes in jurisdiction really warrant declaring a place to be different from an earlier or later place with the same name and in the same physical location? Continuity of everything but jurisdiction argues against that. Whatever a place is, it is not something that changes completely with a change to a county boundary.

Physical Place

What about physical location? Isn’t that something that can be used to say that this is one place and that is another? After all, even  earthquakes only change physical locations by a few feet. With one latitude measurement and one longitude measurement a place ought to be defined. Unfortunately, no.

Niobara, Nebraska- 1881, flooding forced the entire town to be moved to higher ground southwest of its original site. 1974, rising groundwater levels forced the town to be moved a second time to its third and present location.

Osborn, Ohio- 1921, flooding problems that reached their worst in the Great Dayton Flood led to the construction of the Huffman Dam. The town of Osborn and the railroad that served it were moved 2 miles to higher ground next to Fairfield, Ohio to make way for the dam. Houses were loaded onto trucks and hauled to the new location. Twenty-nine years later the town ceased to exist as such when it merged with Fairfield to form the city of Fairborn.

Shawneetown, Illinois- 1937, moved three miles after the Great Ohio River Flood.

Valdez, Alaska- 1967, town moved 4 miles to higher ground after the magnitude 9.2 earthquake and tsunamis of 1964.

English, Indiana- 1990, floods forced the town to move to higher ground.

Pattonsburg, Missouri- 1993, the Grand River reached 12 feet above flood stage. The town was moved to higher ground to the north.

Even as I write, the city of Kiruna, Sweden with 18,000 residents is in the process of being moved two miles because mining is producing underground cracks that threaten the city were the miners themselves live. Years from now, when the process is finished and the fissures have reached the old location, the city will still be Kiruna. It just won’t be where it used to be.

Places move and yet they are still the same place. The people are the same. The government is the same. Even the homes may be the same but the position on the map is different. It is a strange realization that a “place” can move to a different “place” and yet still be the same “place.”

What is a Place?

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then how do we record it? A place is all those things and yet not really any of them. We can only say what we mean by a place by putting together the history of its name changes, jurisdiction changes and even location changes. In principle, it is only that whole collection of history that can indicate that two people born a century apart in places with different names, and even in different states were, in fact, born not in two different places but in the very same place.

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then what is it? It is certainly far more complicated than one would naively expect. As near as I can figure, a place is defined by our feeling of continuity. Enough continuity and it is the same place. Not enough continuity and we decide that it is a different place.

A place is perhaps a member of that category of things that are answers to the question “Where are you from?” that are interconnected by statements like “Oh, that’s really the same place.”

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The Slow Days of Yule

By Daniel Hubbard | January 1, 2014

Life seems to slow down this time of year. It is a bit of a paradox because, of course, Christmas is one of the most hectic of times. Once the shopping madness is over and cooking gives way to warming leftovers, the year comes full circle and there is time to breathe before the holidays give way to just regular January.

Coming full circle is an appropriate way of thinking about this time of year. The English word “Yule” is used as a synonym for Christmas. In Scandinavia the normal word for Christmas is something like “Yule.” In Swedish it is “Jul,” which is pronounced approximately the way English speakers pronounce “Yule.” The original meaning of Yule is more clear in Swedish than in English. The main difference between “Jul” and the Swedish word for “wheel” is a single silent letter. Yule is related to the words wheel and cycle and circle. It is the time when the year comes full circle. One year ends and the next begins. The days grow slowly shorter and shorter then turn around and grow ever so slightly longer. The year has come full circle. We look back on the year that has passed and look forward to the year that is yet to be.

For me this is the time of year that I take a breath and think about how I work, how I organize and how I could do both better. I straighten out my files. I take more time than usual to organize my office. I upgrade software that I have put off upgrading because I didn’t want to disturb projects. I start the new year with everything as up to date as possible. Then I think about what the changes mean to my workflow. What can I now do better? What do I need to do differently? What software can I write myself to help me get from new program A to new feature B? This year I’m starting with several new programs, updated database software and a new operating system. They all bring new possibilities and therefore, maybe new ways of working.

Take a deep breath. Get your genealogy under control. Christmas is over. The year has come full circle. The old year is gone. Happy 2014!


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Different Christmases

By Daniel Hubbard | December 24, 2013

Every year my family gets questions about how we celebrate Christmas. People realize that I am American but that our family is somehow Swedish. It is a good question. Different cultures celebrate holidays in their own ways. The main Christmas celebration might be the day before. It might be on the day. Some celebrations carry on for several days. In other cases, associated holidays are important. Holidays like St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands, or Saint Lucia’s Day in Sweden. The Sundays of Advent can have varying importance and Epiphany might be a day of gift giving.

Those of us with Puritan ancestors ought to be keenly aware that holiday traditions change with time as well as place. In Puritan New England and Cromwellian England, Christmas celebrations were banned. Christmas was “Popish” and lacked a Biblical basis—no instruction to celebrate it and no information about when it  actually occurred. To them it reeked of a pagan solstice festival. I was recently reading Massachusetts Court records dated December 25. It was just another day for them. We should never expect our ancestors to see things the way that we do.

As I rush back to preparing for our tricultural Christmas (American, Swedish and German), I thought I would rerun a parody I wrote for a blog post two years ago-

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was noisy, except my clicking mouse,
The descendants were nestled, all snug in their beds,
But I was still searching for great-Uncle Ned,
And a census with Grandma and Great-Grand-pap,
Who just settled down at this spot on the map,
When suddenly arose some noises exterior,
I swiveled in my chair to free my posterior,
Away to the window, I made a mad dash,
And gazed out on the scene of a quite festive crash,
A tangle of decorations surround a miniature sleigh,
Santa flew low over a Yuletide display,
Reindeer and camels and snowmen all mingled,
I knew in a moment that I’d soon be Kris Kringled,
They struggled to pull all the lights they were trailing,
And even the dead heard his most fearful wailing;
“On Probate, on Will Book, On Baptismal Ledger,
On Census, on Plat Map, On Microfilm Reader!”
He entered extra quickly ’cause I’ve shortened this poem,
And he bore in his hands one enormous tome,
A rub of his eye and a shake of his head,
Soon gave me to know genealogists should be in bed;
He spoke not a word but went straight to my work,
Found all my relations then turned with a jerk,
And leaving the curser beside great-grandpa Morse,
Gave me some papers, each a primary source,
He sprang to his team, I yanked the mess from his sleigh,
So he managed to lift off before it was day,
And I heard his great joy at a sleigh minus fetters,
“Next year your getting all Uncle Ned’s letters!”

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Whither the Source?

By Daniel Hubbard | December 15, 2013

Sources give us information. That information is the same no matter who looks at it. A researcher might miss something but that missed information is there whether we see it or not. Other times information only becomes meaningful when placed in context. The source has the information but the knowledge needed to interpret it needs to be found elsewhere. The researcher starts to leave their own imprint upon the information by building up that context.

The researcher also imposes different uses on the source. In a way, there is nothing unusual about that. The same record can be put to many different uses outside of genealogy. A birth certificate can be used to prove the right to an inheritance (a relationship), prove that one is old enough to drive (birth date) or demonstrate one’s right to a citizenship (birth place or parentage).

In genealogy, the researcher may impose something else upon a source—a direction. Does a birth record prove the identity of the child or of the parents? The way we use a source tends to have a direction that is not implicit in the source itself.  We might record that birth with the parents if it is needed as part of the proof of their identities or it can be directed the other way and indicate the identity of a child.

When we use a source to make a connection, we anchor part of the source in what we already know. Enough information matches that we can be reasonably sure of how the source fits with our previous research. Sometimes everything will fit and the source serves to reenforce what we already knew. Other times facets of the source may point beyond. They might point to a parent, child, spouse or college that was unknown. They might point to an occupation, a place or a time. As we learn more, that bit that once pointed beyond is surrounded and the direction of our work disappears. Did we find the wife’s identity by finding his married daughter in her father’s will or did her maiden name in her marriage record lead us to the will? Which path did we take? In which direction did we point our sources?

We tend to think that once we “know” something, the route that we took to get there is irrelevant. If it later turns out that we are not so sure of what we thought we knew, then the route we took to get there might be a good thing to know as we either try to reassure ourselves or to find our error.

Our route can have more subtle effects as well. How we see an ancestor just might depend on the path we took as we learned about him or her. Was our first impression one of shock over a headline splashed in a newspaper or one of pity as we uncovered the events that eventually caused us to look for and find that headline?

The directions we impose upon our sources can matter.


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Memory Palace

By Daniel Hubbard | December 8, 2013

Every once in a while I hear someone make a comment about how they can only name people along a few generations of their ancestry even if they have researched a dozen generations. I find that there is something mesmerizing or perhaps meditative about turning a family tree over in one’s mind, running through the generations as if they were frames in a film or visualizing the lines of a pedigree as they shoot back in time.

There is an ancient memory technique that goes by the formal name “the method of loci,” memory by locations. The common name for the collection of locations is “memory palace.” I think that is the perfect term. Even without knowing what is meant, the term “memory palace” evokes something. It creates an image and doing that is very appropriate. The whole idea of a memory palace is that memory is enhanced by attaching it to a place that you know well and in your imagination filling that place with striking imagery. It is based on the observation that we remember our way around places very well. Who can’t close their eyes and take a walk around their childhood home as if they were there?

Strange Symbols

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by El Pantera

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by El Pantera

In the days before teleprompters, orators would remember speeches that could go on for hours by imagining a building, then imagining a path that they could walk through that building and then filling separate locations, doorways, hallways and rooms, with memorable images that somehow reminded them of what they wished to say. A roman orator who wished to remember to discuss public works, first talking about improvements to the water supply and then mentioning harbor repairs might include a broken aqueduct which repeatedly disgorges a ship that crashes into a pier in his memory palace. The stranger the imagery the easier it is to remember things. As our ancient orator mentally walked from location to location, each bizarre sight would remind him of the next topic in his speech.

I have my own little ancestral memory palace. It is filled with bizarre representations of surnames and strange symbols for occupations. If only I had a great-grandma Polly who had some questionable character traits, I could place a parrot riding a wildly bucking black sheep in one room of my memory palace.

Some rooms might be like little museums, filled with reminders about a certain ancestor. If you have no trouble remembering that an ancestor was a pioneer and later worked on a canal, you might simply place a log cabin and a canal boat in his room. If you have a harder time remembering his involvement with canals, place him on top of a surfboard sized canal boat and have him catch a wave.


The locations are a tougher problem when constructing a genealogical memory palace than the contents. The standard memory palace is a familiar building through which the memorizer can plot a single unique path and place the reminders that need to be encountered one after the other as they walk through. What building branches over and over so that every hallway leads to two more? I’m certainly not familiar with one. A genealogist’s memory palace, not just the objects in it, needs to be constructed in the mind because no such physical building could exist. My own genealogical memory palace is filled with branching corridors, the splits marked odd bits of imagination that represent new surnames and the rooms off to the side are each filled with reminders of a single ancestor.

Of course this isn’t necessary. I carry my genealogy in my pocket and can pull up any ancestor with a few taps. There is, though, something sublime about having those corridors of memory in my mind where I can get the feeling of traveling through time. It is, I think, a form of meditation.

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No More Mr. Nice Pilgrim

By Daniel Hubbard | December 1, 2013

Last week I wrote a bit about Mayflower passenger George Soule. One thing that I mentioned was that he wrote a will that names his children. He did his genealogical duty. What I didn’t mention was a very interesting detail of his probate.

George gave, or had already given, something to each of his surviving children—not unusual. He left the bulk of his estate to his eldest son—not unusual. He named his eldest son to be the executor of his estate—also not unusual. Then something changed.

He wrote that he had already given his younger sons all of his lands in Dartmouth and a pair of daughters had received his lands in Middleberry. He began to give away the rest of his estate naming two other daughters who were to receive 12 pence each. That left eldest son John as the last sibling to be mentioned. He and his family were thanked for their care and the tenderness and love that they had shown George during the latter’s decline. John’s bequest was simple. He was to receive “all the Remainder of my housing and lands.” It was to be a very significant amount. Of George’s significant estate, John would receive everything except for twenty-four pence that would go to two of his sisters. John was to be his father’s executor as well. At least that is what is contained in George’s will of August 11, 1677.

By September 20 something had happened. It must have been dramatic. George is silent about the cause but on that date he added a codicil to his will. It is short and to the point. John and his family, who had been heralded for their loving aid to his father just under six weeks earlier, were suddenly seen very differently—

If my son John Soule above named or his heires or Assignes of any of them shall att any time Disturbe my Daughter Patience or her heires or Assignes or any of them in peaceable Posession or Injoyment of the lands I have Given her…then my Gift to my son John Soule shall  be voyd and that then my will is that my Daughter Patience shall have all my lands in Duxburrey And shee shalbe my sole executrix…

I wonder. What was it that caused George to suddenly change his attitude toward his son’s family? I’d like to be able to look back in time and see the argument or learn of the discovery that gave a dying man the jolt that made him add that codicil. As with many a genealogical riddle, I can see a hundred different versions of the story but may never know the one hundred and first version that contains the truth. What would cause him to write that if his son or practically anyone associated with his son should “disturb” his daughter or her family then John would get nothing and his sister, who had already received land, would inherit everything else as well? John would also suffer what could only have been seen in the seventeenth century as the humiliation of being displaced as executor by his sister. The eldest son ousted in favor of the youngest daughter was not something that would have been lost on John or on Plymouth society as a whole. For whatever reason, his father drew a line and warned his son that if he or anyone in his family crossed it, economic retaliation and social disgrace would follow.

By the following February, George was dead.

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If April Showers Bring Mayflowers…

By Daniel Hubbard | November 24, 2013

pilgrims_350pxIt is that time of year when children’s thoughts veer from pumpkins to Pilgrims to prancing hooves in rapid succession. Genealogical research won’t put a jack-o-lantern or a flying reindeer into their family trees but what about a Pilgrim? Through a child’s eyes, the level of reality is about the same and, even to many adults, the passengers on the Mayflower are just some half-remembered residents of that foggy place known as grade school history class.

Perhaps the most profound part of family history is the discovery of our own personal links to the past—pulling at least some of the sweep of the human experience out of the history books and claiming it for one’s own. Those links might be to nearly nameless men and women or to the famous and infamous. The point is that the links are there waiting to be found. They might be links to people very similar to ourselves or people so alien that it is almost hard to realize that we have just laid claim them.

…What do Mayflowers Bring?

As part of a large project, I’ve been researching a colonial family from Connecticut. A few weeks ago, I traced the family back to Plymouth County, Massachusetts in the late 1690s. A decade earlier that county and all the rest of New England had been put together into the “Dominion of New England.” The Dominion was unpopular and when the the English overthrew James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Dominion government was quickly overthrown as well. Massachusetts Bay Colony reverted to its previous colonial charter but Plymouth Colony had never had a charter. In London, the new monarchs, William and Mary, decided to merge the two into a single colony and the colony of the Pilgrims ceased to exist as a separate political entity and Plymouth County joined Massachusetts.

As I worked back to those earlier times, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, became Plymouth Colony and the population dwindled until only a few people from a few ships were living there. I’ve researched in Plymouth Colony’s records before but never ended with a Mayflower passenger. Now Halloween had passed and so had the first week of November. If you are a little kid, pumpkin season was over and Pilgrim season was beginning. And this time there are some little kids in the family who might turn out to be “part Pilgrim.” Once reindeer season begins, that news wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

So I decided that I had to try to find if the trail ended with a Pilgrim before the magic moment had passed. Luckily George Soule was kind to me. He deeded land to his children and listed them in his will even if their births were not recorded. When the colony’s land was divided among the colonists for the first time in 1623, the receivers of the land were listed according to the ship upon which they had arrived and George Soule is listed under the Mayflower. The original Mayflower Compact no longer exists and none of the the early transcriptions includes the list of signatories but the list was copied and published in 1669. On that list is the name George Soule. I got the privilege of sending a quick email with the findings before Thanksgiving, before the climax of “Pilgrim Season,” when it might make it a little bit more exciting to be a little kid eating turkey on a Thursday in November. Sometimes it is cool to be a genealogist.

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Checking Stories and Finding Pasts

By Daniel Hubbard | November 17, 2013

Yesterday was the second annual “Exploring Your Swedish Roots” at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago. I was one of the researchers who helped people with their Swedish research problems. I always enjoy events like this. In a way it was almost an athletic event. Every half hour, for five hours, a new research problem to try to get a handle on, a new set of names and dates and relationships with new sets of evidence as input and new clues to tease out of what is already known. When an event like that is over the feeling is very similar to the one I remember having after a track meet—a mixture of exhaustion and joy.

One of the most enjoyable things is working with people with different levels of experience and so many different types of problems. Today one visitor had been researching for years, so he knew quite a bit about his ancestry but there was a name that appeared in his family seemingly out of nowhere and a story that had been passed down about a soldier in the family. Swedish soldiers were issued new names to go with their uniforms. The alternative would be a company of men made up of 50% Svenssons, 30% Larssons and the remainder made up of a mixture of Perssons and Olofssons. Imagine that chaos that would ensue when an officer bellowed “Svensson come here.” So Swedish soldiers got new, unique names when they joined the army. A new name just appearing in the family and a family story of a soldier. Could their be a connection? Not this time, both men turned out to be mill workers. There may be something to the story but it wasn’t to be found among them.

Someone else I helped was looking for the origins of her Swedish grandfather. I found him but needed to also explain that he was born out of wedlock. When I first started researching that was still a discovery which was not always accepted or even to be discussed. It was often actively denied despite the evidence. I guess because of that I still have a moment of hesitation when I need to bring it up even if it is never a problem anymore. In this case the response was, “Well, that confirms the old family rumors. Great!” I even found that he had taken his maternal grandfather’s name and used it as a surname when he emigrated. There will always be more mysteries but at least that one was solved.

The last bit of research was in many ways the most fun. She was just starting out and only had some notes jotted down from research she had been helped with just a few minutes before. We got both Swedish branches of her family back a generation without too much trouble. She was ecstatic. Her reaction reminded me of the joy that can come with making those first discoveries when even the possibility that those ancestors can be found is a revelation and finding a few families can double or triple a family tree. Suddenly you have names, dates and occupations. You have places that you can dream of visiting. You have a personal past.

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