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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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950 Hours, Almost One Hundred Years Ago

By Daniel Hubbard | November 11, 2013

Just about every year at this time, I write something about the First World War. The anniversary of the end of that horror is the reason that Veterans Day falls on the 11th of November.

French Troops in their trench at Verdun, 1916

French troops in their trench at Verdun, 1916

Last year, the last living veteran of the war died. Next year, July 28 will bring the one hundredth anniversary of the day in 1914 when the war began. After the assassination of their heir to the throne, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. It was done knowing that Germany would lend support if needed. That date is years before the United States became involved but within days of that first declaration, Europe was at war.

The reason that the Austrians wanted guarantees of German support was Serbia’s sizable main ally, Russia. The army of the Russian Empire began to mobilize two days after the Austrian declaration. The Germans felt that their survival hinged on making sure that they did not fight a war simultaneously both in the west and in the east. They would go on the offensive and win the war in the west before the Russian Army was fully ready. On August 4, Germany invaded Belgium as way of getting its army into France as quickly as possible. It was believed by the German high command that the army had 950 hours to defeat France before they would be forced to turn it around to face east. The clock had begun to tick the moment the Russian army began to mobilize. As the clock ticked out the last of those 950 hours, the French and British stopped the German advance within artillery range of Paris. The 950 hours had run out. Four years later the clock was still ticking its last furious ticks and the German’s own prediction, defeat France in 950 hours or be defeated, was mere weeks from coming true.

My own relationship to the Western Front changed years ago. I’ve mentioned before that my wife’s grandfather had been in the trenches of the Western Front but on the German side. He started to keep a diary even before the war. He continued to keep it during his months of fighting. He continued after he was badly wounded and left the fighting for good. Sometime next year part of those diaries that her grandfather kept will be published as a part of a graphic novel. It will be printed in German and in French in remembrance of the one hundredth anniversary of those years that hollowed out the collective soul of a generation.

I wonder, what will it feel like to see all those drawings that will depict a piece of the history of my family, drawn as they will be with the intent of capturing a piece, not of my family’s history, but of the history of a continent?

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Watching for Bumps in the Road

By Daniel Hubbard | November 3, 2013

One of the tricky things to deal with in any research is evidence that leads you astray. There are some things in genealogy to avoid some such problems. We try to understand how records are created and how imperfections might sneak in.

The misinformed and distraught informant used to create a death certificate might not know the names of her departed husbands parents but think that she does, or might be so upset that he gives the wrong date of birth for his wife, even though they had observed the correct birthday for many years. The child that is left off the will might have been alive and well and on good terms with his father but has already received all that was due to him, so he goes unmentioned. The census enumerator might have found no one home and simply talked to a neighbor to get the best information that he could. These are all things that can happen and that we simply need to consider as we think about how trustworthy any piece of evidence actually is.

Bumps

This week I ran into too many examples of closely a related problem. The person who created the record or cataloged it simply made some sort of mistake. Not a slip of memory. Not giving us information in a way that might seem odd today and not choosing an informant that was less qualified than one would hope. Those are categories of problems that we can anticipate depending on the type of record. These were more random. That makes them harder to anticipate but not so difficult to deal with if we keep our eyes open.

Bump 1 Some bumps in the road the record travels are obvious enough. They come with big, yellow, firmly-planted warning signs. I ran into a database of information extracted from a set of annually produced city directories. Very nice. One gets a name, an address, an occupation and of course since the directories were produced annually you get the year as well. Except in this case. Most of the entries had years but the one that was most crucial to me did not. Annual directories come with years of publication often right in their titles but somehow the information was lost.

Bump 2 Missing information is one thing but wrong is another. I found a widow that I was tracing in an 1894 directory. That was quite a coup because she had supposedly died by 1886. This time though, there were proper pages to examine. The book was cataloged as the 1894 directory, but if so, it was an amazing feat of prognostication because the publication date on the title page was 1884.* I think that has to be one of the downsides of digitized books–you don’t see the cover, you just jump right to the place your search leads you, trusting that you are actually in the book you think you are in, trusting that nothing like this example of time travel has occurred. Remember to check that digitized title page.

Bump 3 A microfilm that I ordered to check if the child I was looking for might have been baptized in the parish covered by the film also had a bit of time travel to it. Luckily, I was interested in the baptisms first. I found what I wanted and I was by then familiar with the span of years covered. Then I decided to check the marriages. If I had been interested in the marriages first, I might not have noticed that baptisms and burials ran to much later dates than the marriages. Odd…and wrong. The marriages were supposed to run only to the 1820s. I stopped checking when I got well past 1848, when the baptism occurred. At least two extra decades of marriages were there beyond what the label claimed.

Bump 4 I was looking for a woman on a passenger list. I had the approximate year, I had her birth year but no luck. I tried various combinations of things in the search that I was performing. Some more research turned up her husband’s given name. Bingo, found him right away. She was listed right below him. He was 32. She was 30, just like I would have predicted. Hmm… The index had her as 80. Well, that is too bad but it is understandable, the 30 did look something like 80. What was odd was that in the original, she was listed without a surname, just a blank because it was understood that her name was the same as her husband’s. Hmm… the index has her husband’s surname correct but hers was totally mangled. I still wonder what the exact sequence of events was that led to her nonexistent name being misinterpreted. Presumably, his was once mangled as well but it certainly is not what one would expect.

marriage_300pxBump 5 Finally, pity the poor clerks. They are the road crews of our research—we all know how vital their jobs are but no one likes it when we have things to do and places to go and they have the nerve to get in our way while they work to make our lives easier. They hold up “slow” signs. They send us on detours. They set out those “bump” warning signs. I was very thankful earlier in the week to find that a clerk had made an entry in a marriage register that proved something important to what I was researching. If I had been researching the couple listed on the line above and not noticed “my” line, I would have made a mistake. On the left hand page, the information on the two lines was different, as it should be for different marriages. The information on the right hand page was identical. The same information had been copied into the register twice but only on that page where it was less noticeable. I know from other evidence that my line was not filled with the random information that one would expect from such a mistake. On close inspection, the line above had enough oddities within in it that only some strange and presumably illegal marriage practices could have produced it.

Sometimes when careening down the information superhighway’s genealogy lane, it can be good to take the off-ramp, get on the frontage road, slow down and take in one’s surroundings. They are often not what they are supposed to be. You might even want to stop and check both the oil and the title page.

 

 

 

 

* Imagine it is 1884 and you receive you shiny, new 1894 city directory and crack it open to find yourself or your wife listed as “widow of…” Not a good day.

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Nudging Destiny

By Daniel Hubbard | October 27, 2013

I sometimes wonder if things that people know about their past when growing up or even the way that they are named influences them later in life. I know that being named for ancestors and hearing stories about them played a role in my becoming a genealogist so it must happen to other people as well. When I was a kid I listened to a DJ on the radio with an interesting name. You’d think that a DJ that had “Records” in his name was just using a nickname but I remember him explaining once that actually, his middle name really was “Records” and yes, it did have some influence on his becoming a DJ. I also think I have a vague memory of my grandmother talking about a fellow doctor by the name of Bonebreak, or some such name. That could always be a coincidence or that name could have provided a gentle push toward an interest in medicine.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin salutes the American Flag on the surface of the Moon, July 1969.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the American Flag on the surface of the Moon, July 1969.

A while back, the Swedish-American Museum in Chicago asked me for a little quick research into the ancestry of Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11′s lunar module pilot and the second person to walk upon the moon. He is part Swedish and they were planning an addition to their children’s museum dedicated to him. They wanted to make sure that they had his ancestry correct. For an astronaut, his ancestry is rather interesting if you think that little things we know about our past might give us gentle pushes in certain directions. You see, his mother’s maiden name was “Moon.”

It was his father’s side of the family that was Swedish, so that is what I investigated. I traced his grandfather back to Sweden. I traced him back twice actually, because he came to the U.S., returned to Sweden and then made the crossing again with his family. It was where I found him the year that he left for America the first time that was surprising. In 1886 Karl Johan Aldrin lived at “Stjernsfors Bruk.” Loosely translated that is “The mill at Star’s Rapids.” Hmm…

The Swedish-American Museum’s Buzz Aldrin exhibit opens this weekend and I’m proud to have made my little genealogical contribution.

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A Genealogist’s Halloween

By Daniel Hubbard | October 20, 2013

Ding Dong!

(latch clicks, door opens)

“Trick or Treat!”

“Oh, aren’t you cute! A broken microfilm reader! And what are the rest of you?”

“I’m really inaccurate search results!”

“Oh, yes I see! And look, you’re a gedcom file that includes King Arthur and Hercules. Wow, now that is scary!”

“Who else do we have here? You look like Frankenstein’s Monster.”

“I’m an ancestor assembled from spare parts!”

“Oh No! Terrible. So what would you like? I have some lovely microfilms.”

“Oh we love those!”

“Just don’t scroll through them all at once, they’ll give you blurry vision.”

(door closes)

“The volunteers here are always so nice!”

“Wow, I got two “fun sized” New York state census reels for Oswego County. What did you get?”

“I got a reel of Cleveland marriage licenses!”

“Mine says ‘Baptisms: St. Underpants upon Washbasin Parish, Ripplethwaite’ … I’ll never understand British research.”

“No, me neither.”

“You don’t suppose there are real underpants in there?”

“Hope not… Hey is that Billy across the street? It looks like him and it would be just like him to dress up that gross.”

“Hey, Billy, that you? What are you?”

“Yep, it’s me. I’m undead! I was born in 1674 but I’m marked “Living” online.”

“That’s creepy!”

“Yes, so I’m doomed to wander the earth on Halloween night in search of my probate packet.”

“I think I know where we could find it.”

“Where?”

“There!” (points, ominous background music is heard, the children are suddenly subdued.)

“But mom told me never to go there.”

“We can’t go there. I hear researchers go in never to be seen again.”

“But if Billy needs his probate packet, you know we have to look there now. By tomorrow it will vanish again for another year.”

(Moments later on the front steps)

“I don’t know. I can already smell smoke. I think we’re too late.”

“Nonsense. That’s probably just the smell of the clerks’ candles coming through the window.”

“I dunno. It looks like no one has been in there for 200 years and I don’t think we should go in either.”

Suddenly, lightning flashes, the roof bursts into flames and spectral clerks pour from the windows and doors shrieking and flinging shadowy buckets of water all about. The children freeze in terror as one last archivist-wraith flies straight through the main door screeching and lamenting. He turns toward the little genealogists and bellows the dire warning-

“No one gets probate packets from The Burnt Courthouse.” Then vanishes into the night with a blood-curdling laugh.

The children scream and run as fast as they can back to Billy’s house, barely slowing down to scoop up the poll lists and session laws that flutter from their bags as they run.

Finally, safe at Billy’s, his mother consoles them with extra helpings of hot cider and pension records but poor Billy will have to wait another year for his chance to remove the “Private- Living” label from his costume.

THE END

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Who Aren’t You?

By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2013

Sometimes we like to think that genealogy tells us “who we are.” I think it might change who we are. I think it can connect us to history. I think it can help us understand the members of our families by revealing something of their formative experiences but I don’t think it tells us who we are in any deterministic sense. I am me regardless of what I just discovered about a sixth great-grandfather. Learning about his experience might change me, might make me think, but it doesn’t actually tell me who I am. Sometimes in fact our family history might tell us who we aren’t, despite the bond of blood.

Case in Point

An incredible example of this has appeared in the news over the last few weeks. A woman in Germany stumbled upon a book. A picture of a woman in the book looked familiar to her so she kept reading. After skimming through it, she read a summary of the life of the woman in the picture and that summary fit what she knew of her biological mother and her maternal grandmother who had committed suicide decades earlier. It was her own family history in that book.

She had grown up not really knowing her biological mother who had put her in a children’s home after becoming pregnant during a brief affair. Now she had found something of her past but this wasn’t the kind of discovery that tells you who you are. It was the kind that tells you who you are not.

The book she discovered was a memoir written by her biological mother. She learned that Ruth, her maternal grandmother, had worked for Oskar Schindler in Krakow in the mid 1940s, which is how she met Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp. She became his mistress and bore him a daughter ten months before he was executed for ordering torture and extermination and for personally torturing and killing a large but unknown number of people. In fact, he was so sadistic that he had been relieved of his command by the SS for his mistreatment of prisoners and eventually ruled mentally ill by SS doctors and committed to a mental institution. This was the maternal grandfather that she had never been told about. All she knew of Amon Goeth came from seeing him portrayed in Schindler’s List long before she knew that he was her grandfather.

That would be unnerving enough but there is one last twist. The woman in question, Jennifer Teege, is biracial. Her father was a Nigerian student. Given the chance, Amon Goeth would have personally shot her.

Our family history doesn’t always tell us about who we are. It can tell us, emphatically, who we are not. But it does always tells us something.

_______________________

A few links to the story-

The Independent

BBC

Deutsche Welle (in English)

 

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Heathcliff meets Sherlock Holmes

By Daniel Hubbard | October 6, 2013

What we present to others, especially non genealogists, are usually the  condensed results of research. They would probably not want all the gory details so instead we give them the dry bones, which aren’t necessarily any more palatable. What is it that we should convey? What is it that holds interest?

The Medium is the Message

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” he was thinking of the interplay between the medium that conveys the message and the message itself. We may convey our message with a quick comment made to a person whose eyes may light up or glaze over. We might convey it with a pedigree chart, a book or anything in between. The medium and the message interact. Some media are good for conveying a few facts, others for conveying a great deal of information and context. Other media may convey a great deal of the richness of the story without spelling out where that information actually originated. Genealogy on television clearly tips toward showing the results of the research without much of the details. How could it do otherwise? A feed of source citations scrolling across the bottom of the screen would interest me at times but would hardly be a plus for the audience in general and would probably annoy nearly everyone at least some of the time. Change the medium to a research report and and it has to have those citations.

Research vs Results

One thing that I ponder often is what a genealogical story actually is. Is it the narrative that could be written based on our research? If we change the medium to a novel, some of the subjects of our research could easily be characters in a book (if anyone would believe them). In the extreme, the novelized ancestor would be stripped of all reference to the sources of the data and all the inferences drawn and all those modifiers that one needs to use in research when things aren’t perfectly clear. The presentation can be a work of art but it doesn’t tell the reader what the evidence was or how the reconstruction was made.

On the other hand, a genealogical story could also be the mystery story of the research itself. In that case the story isn’t a narrative that reflects the lives of the people being researched but rather the process behind discovering them. That sounds dry, but we all know that it isn’t. The thrill of genealogy is the thrill of the chase and it is full of both eureka moments and the intriguing trail of clues that people left behind a century or two ago that we can carefully discover. An ancestor may not have done anything particularly dramatic, yet the process of discovering them might have been truly fascinating. It might be the tale of how nineteen different documents, most of them obscure and hard to locate, were identified, contemplated and pieced together in the one way that makes sense no matter how improbable the result might seem.

So what is the story? I think genealogical stories almost have to be a blending of the two. There are two messages, yin and yang—the tale of the long ago lives and the mystery of their discovery. A genealogical story lives in a quantum world where it can be both Wuthering Heights and and an extensively footnoted tale of Sherlock Holmes. That is the story we should try to tell and the reason it is so difficult.

 

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Supporting Statements

By Daniel Hubbard | September 29, 2013

I was tempted to title this post something like “Feeling Geeky” but that didn’t seem to be specific enough. There are so many things in genealogy that one could write about when feeling geeky. This is just one of them but it is one of the most important.

Statements and Support

Every statement made in genealogy should have something to back it up. It might be a document, a book, a grave marker or any number of other possibilities. If we have a statement on the one hand and a piece of information on the other, we also need to make the connection between just that statement and just that piece of information.  That connection between the two is what we make when we add a source citation.

We often think about sources as having certain properties. Those properties can actually be properties of the extracted pieces of information or of the connection between our statement and that extracted information. Here are the three properties that one normally considers.

Form

A source is usually a physical object that can be classified as a whole. The property used to classify the source is its “form.” The form can be:

  1. Original- It might be an actual sheet of paper, two centuries old. It might be a photograph or digital scan of the same sheet of paper. Just about anything else done to the source makes it-
  2. Derivative- Perhaps the original source was copied by hand, translated or abstracted. To that, some people add-
  3. Authored- An authored work takes information from multiple sources and produces new statements. These are sometimes simply considered as being derivative.

Knowledge

Every piece of information that you can extract from a source was once the knowledge of a person. An important property of that information is the separation between that person and the information that they reported. That knowledge can be:

  1. Primary- the information was the informant’s firsthand knowledge. The informant knew the information from their own senses. Otherwise the knowledge is-
  2. Secondary- literally this means that someone who saw or heard the event told the informant whatever it was that the informant later had recorded. In practice, one often considers any knowledge that is not primary as secondary simply because there is often no way of knowing how many steps there were between the observer and the informant.

The classic example of the difference between the form of the source and the knowledge of the information comes from death certificates. The source may be original and the informant may have been present at the death, making that information primary, but the certificate probably also has a birth date reported by the informant. If the informant was an adult son or daughter, that knowledge must be secondary.

Support

There is a property that is specific to the connection between your statement and the information from the source. Once you link a piece of information to a statement that you are making, that information becomes evidence. That might sound odd but evidence is meaningless on its own. It has to be evidence for something to be evidence. Otherwise it is just information. How the evidence supports your statement is an important property. That support can be:

  1. Direct- One piece of information makes it clear why you believe your statement to be true. It supplies you with all you need to make your statement. If the evidence is relevant but insufficient then it is-
  2. Indirect- One piece of evidence only allows you to make your statement when combined with other evidence. One last type of evidence is-
  3. Negative- there is no information to extract from a source that ought to have that information if a hypothesis were true. You might have been told that a person lived the first forty years of his life in the town of South Somewhere. After searching relevant records that ought to record such a man—for example birth, marriage death, land, probate, census and tax—you find nothing that even contains a similar surname let alone the man in question. Your negative result is negative evidence for the South Somewhere hypothesis.

A piece of evidence carries all three of those properties with it. A source that has a form contains bits of information that derive from a type of knowledge and any bits of information that can be related to a statement become evidence that give a type of support to that statement.

That concludes the big three properties but there is something that I think might need to be added to that list because there is another property of information that I find to be useful in research.

Indication

One of the most important things about a piece of information is what is indicated about its origins. I’m tempted to say that the type of indication is a fourth property that should be tracked. That indication can be:

  1. Cites- The information comes with one or more citations that point to other sources. An authored or derivative source ought to tell the reader where the author found the information or what exactly had been abstracted. Unfortunately, many times there is no citation. In that case the next best thing is if it-
  2. States- There isn’t a full citation but there is enough of a statement made to point the reader in the right direction. An author might make a statement like “While searching in the South Somewhere courthouse I found the following among the probate records.” A clerk recording a meeting might make a statement about the following business having been brought forward from the previous year. A paper found as part of a pension application might contain a statement about a marriage record from Some Other County having been presented to show that the widow had married the soldier on a specific day. Other times things aren’t so clear. In that case the next best thing is if it-
  3. Implies- There is no statement about where the information originated but it is of a type that points in a certain direction. This often happens with older authored sources. A family might be listed in which all the daughters’ husbands are given without first names. That implies that the ultimate source for that information is probably a will or other probate document that lists the daughters by married name. The fourth possible value for this property is-
  4. Silent- You have clearly not reached the ultimate source of the information but there is no useful indication about what next step back in the chain might be. It might be that no indication was recorded. One all too often runs into useless indications, such as “A variety of records were used to create this invaluable resource.” I mentally add, “and the variety was so fabulously great that, as valuable as we claim this to be, we can’t be bothered to tell you what those records were.” Those might as well be silent. There is one last possible value for this property-
  5. Not applicable- you’ve got primary information from an original source. There may be more to find in different records, but you have followed this one set of indications to the end of the road.

There is an interesting bit of self reference in this property. If you make a statement, you have created something that someone else could use as a piece of information. Your statement becomes their information. Your citations, your link to the information that you used, becomes their indication for the next step back toward the ultimate source.

 

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GeneADHDlogy

By Daniel Hubbard | September 23, 2013

“Hmm…I wonder if this the right family. It could be. Better check these new names and see if they clarify things…I’ll start with Reginald, that’s an unusual name.”

“Oh, what’s this? Ronald…Could that be Reginald? Better check that!”

“Wait, which window did I have that first document in? Ok, found it.”

“Here is a Donald that could be Ronald…Huh, this is strange but interesting. How does this fit? Oh, wait, it doesn’t. I’m looking for a Reginald that might be noted as Ronald but probably not as Donald. Now what window had the first document?”

“Oops, clicked the close button! I still need that! Well, it should be in my browser history…Hmm, what’s this item. I don’t remember looking at that. Better open it again and take a look. Oh yes, that! Now I remember that. Oooh! that is a familiar surname that I missed before. Now who were they?”

(Digs through database. Clicks through people with the same surname.)

“Hmm…might be the same family but nobody actually matches. Now what window had that first document?”

“Oh yes, I closed it. Where was the browser history. It was in one of these tabs. Here it is and there is the link for that document.”

“Ok, back in business. I better look at a few things to try to understand this.”

(Five new browser windows open in rapid succession)

“These don’t seem to be the same person. Time to try Google.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of hits!”

“Oh my gosh! Is that great-aunt Gladys that this site is talking about? Oh my, look at that image. I’ve never seen that clipping. Did she really do that!?”

“Wow, I didn’t know that great-aunt Gladys ever acted that way! Hard to believe that was really her. Better email the cousins!”

“Now, what was it that I was doing…? Oh yes, Donald…”

Focus

If that little monologue seems far too familiar, you may be suffering from geneADHDlogy.

Treatment is available.

Sometimes one of the most difficult parts of doing research is staying focused. There are many things that can help. Writing down a goal and documenting the steps you take as you take them can help keep things on track.

When I led meetings often in my telecom days, I learned a technique that probably has many names. I learned the name “parking lot.” It was a place to note down all the things that were said or asked that were perhaps interesting but were certainly off-topic. It was a way to ease that part of a participant’s brain that was stuck on a thought and didn’t want to let it go because then it might be forgotten. Sometimes a researcher is wise to put a thought or a document in their own private parking lot so that they can keep focus on the goal without being distracted by the possibility of forgetting about or losing that juicy story about great-aunt Gladys. Getting that straight can be the goal for another day.

 

 

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Identity

By Daniel Hubbard | September 15, 2013

Genealogists deal with people’s identities all the time. We don’t normally deal with the physical reality of those people. We don’t deal with the he-is-right-there-in-front-of-me type of identity. We deal with little bits of information here and there. If we have it right, some data overlaps between sources and other data that isn’t found anywhere else extends our knowledge of that identity. In a sense that is the heart of the meaning of identity. It is the quality of being identical. That is, the person represented by this document is identical to the person found in that other document. Here there is the concept of a person as they exist on paper, being assembled from different documents. It is the concept of reuniting what had been scattered.

We also have the word “individual.” Individuals certainly have identities but the concepts run in opposing directions. An individual is literally something that cannot be divided, a unity that cannot be broken apart. For obvious reasons we associate the word “individual” with the physical reality of a person. That physical reality comes into existence and eventually goes out of existence. The nature of a person’s identity is certainly altered once the individual no longer exists but as any genealogist knows, identities remain in one form or another.

Modern Identity

A few things lately have me thinking about identity. A document I obtained for a client is quite explicitly about identity. A local official stated that the man standing before him was someone he knew well and that he was the same person as the man listed in a group of papers that were being submitted. That official identified that man. He stated that all the documents could be properly assembled into his identity. It is a document from a small place and long ago time.

Recently there was a theft of computers from a large healthcare company. According to the company, the computers contained the identities of about 4 million patients from a span of roughly 30 years. Here again we have the literal meaning of identity. Multiple facts about individuals were assembled and held together. The person named X is identical to the person with telephone number Y who is also identical to the person with social security number Z. Group enough facts like that together and they form an identity, a thing that can be stolen. An identity is also a thing that can be protected. Unfortunately in this case, the computers did not have encryption turned on and several million people’s identities are now in limbo.

Another news story that caught my eye was a guilty plea in a fraud case in which the social security numbers of then recently deceased individuals were used to obtain tax refunds about 5 years ago. Whenever I read something like this, it boggles my mind. Any competent genealogist understands that a properly assembled identity includes the fact of death once an individual has passed away. Once a person dies, their identity should contain that detail, there is no longer an individual who matches the identity. The identity still exists but it is changed finally and forever. The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (commonly used by genealogists in the form of the Social Security Death Index) exists to make that determination of death an easy matter, that final alteration and inactivation of the identity. Once that fact is added to the identity, once the person represented is shown to be identical to the person who has died, all the acts in which a living person with that identity can engage should simply cease. It is an identity that can no longer be used or abused. Anyone can make that determination. Anyone who deals with identities should check to see if that endpoint has been reached. Why don’t they? Why do they not perform that last vital step when dealing with an identity and see if it still has a corresponding individual?

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