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Sign Here Please

By Daniel Hubbard | July 13, 2014

Today when we think of autograph books, we think of a fan holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other, arms outstretched toward some celebrity. Having one of those once owned by your grandmother might tell you something about her tastes at one stage of her life but it wouldn’t really serve as a useful genealogical resource.

Autograph books have been around since the 1400s. They were not then what they have become. In the early days of autograph books, they were used by university students to collect the signatures of professors and classmates. The modern yearbook descends from that use of the autograph book. Unfortunately, the number of people who can trace their ancestry back to someone who graduated from a university ca. 1480 is rather small and the chance that the right autograph book has survived, or ever existed, doesn’t give one much hope.

Nineteenth Century

A 19th century autograph book. photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

A 19th century autograph book.
photo by Xiaphias, from Wikimedia Commons

Nineteenth century autograph books are another matter. Even then, university students were a rare breed, but the use of autograph books had spread well beyond them. The books were especially common among children.  Friends still signed but so did another group of people that perks up our genealogical ears—relatives. I’ve used autograph books several times in research and I’ve learned that those relatives can be very kind to the genealogists who would later appear in their families. Simply signing “Cousin Roger” can be helpful. Usually people dated entries as well, so that means we can be sure that Cousin Roger signed on June 23, 1888. That’s better. Sometimes those relatives added the town where they lived. Now we have Cousin Roger signing on June 23, 1888 and telling us that he lived in Cornerville, Illinois. That makes it even more interesting. There is one last possibility. Cousin Roger might not have signed “Cousin Roger.” Instead he might have signed “Cousin Roger Haskell.” If that wasn’t your ancestor’s surname, that name could be new to you. If you don’t know the maiden name of the mother of the autograph book’s owner, you may have found a very big clue.

If we leave Cousin Roger behind, one last thing to point out about these books has to do with the age of the original owner. Because they were often young, older relatives were typically among the signers. People in the owner’s generation are wonderful to identify. People one or two generations back can be even better. Finding the signature of “Grandpa Hartman, Oakton, Iowa” could just lead to that elusive genealogical adrenaline rush. “Uncle Horace Haskell” signing the same day as Cousin Roger wouldn’t be so bad either.

 Just for Fun

There are fun things in these books as well. Often people did not simply sign. They might scribble out a short poem or aphorism or perhaps add a quick sketch. It tells you something about the personality of the signer and perhaps their impression of what the book’s owner might like.

The poems can be serious, as in the example image in this post, but they are often a bit fluffy or silly. They tend to be something well known with just a few words changed to fit the occasion-

Roses are red,
Tree bark is brown,
I look forward to seeing you,
Next time I’m in town.

I just made that up, but it is the type of thing that one finds. It is interesting  that people of the late nineteenth century seemed to have a much richer set of silly knock-off poems to choose from than we have today. You won’t be stuck with twenty versions of “Roses are red” if you read an old autograph book.

One can also find somewhat heavier statements in autograph books from time to time. Sentences like “Remember that the hand of our mighty Lord rests upon you in judgement now and always” are rare but do appear.  Those also tell us something about the person who would write that in the autograph book of a child.

Autograph Hunting

These books are not something that you are likely to run into casually but they do still exists. Some archival collections contain a set of autograph books. Relative’s attics are another prime category of storage location. When interviewing relatives it is always wise to ask about family mementos, especially that family Bible you’ve heard of but that no one can locate. Another wise thing to ask about are small, thin books between the size of a credit card and a post card. They may say nothing at all on the cover. They may be full of autographs.

Happy hunting!


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By Daniel Hubbard | July 6, 2014

A few years ago about this time of year, when independence is an important word, I wrote a post about data independence—the idea that only independent data improves our knowledge. When data all derives from the same source it is dependent. More dependent data does nothing to help us move our research forward.

I’ve been thinking about that again both because of the time of year and because of the talk on DNA that I’m working on.

One of the things that makes DNA so useful is its independence from documents and the human memories that produced them. DNA is also free from questions of tampering (at least for now) and provenance. Virtually every document we use is a written version of  a memory. The memory may be correct or incorrect. It might be fresh or faded. It might have been checked or corroborated at the time or it might not. It might be an attempt to relate what happened or in a few cases it might be intentionally altered, bending the truth or altering it beyond all recognition.

DNA is a chemical memory, not a mental one. A DNA test might give a false positive or a false negative. It might even give correct and yet truly bizarre results in those rare cases of chimerism in which a person is their own twin and passes on DNA to their children that does not at all correspond to what was found by the familiar swab of the check. For the most part though, DNA correctly tells us about the biological relationships that form that part of our personal past. It yields that information in a way that is independent of of any memory or document. It does not come filled with names, dates and places as documents do. Without help it is silent on those points but it does tell an almost unerring story of the the links between us.

Yet the whole point of DNA evidence is dependence. Your DNA depends on your parents DNA, which depended on their parents DNA. If you find a match, the reason that you have done so is that your match’s DNA depends on the DNA of an ancestor you have in common. It is the lack of independence from person to person that gives DNA its value to genealogy. My DNA and my distant cousin’s DNA both depend on one or two long ago people who passed on the DNA that doesn’t just partially determine who we are, it identifies the link between us.

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Leave No Document Unturned

By Daniel Hubbard | June 29, 2014

The other day a client whose Swedish ancestry I’ve been investigating asked me to take on a project researching in Norwegian records. Norwegian research isn’t something I’d done before except for a document here or there but with that full disclosure, I said I would take a look.

Getting into new records is always interesting. There are so many ways to record the events that give us those stepping stones we walk across to understand people’s lives. Every new jurisdiction, culture, religion and time period has different aspects to its records. Having done so much Swedish research, Norwegian records feel somewhat familiar but they aren’t the same. Those differences act as reminders to keep the eyes and the mind open. Open eyes and open mind are things that apply no matter what the records are and no matter how familiar we are with them.


Marriage records are one of the more variable records there are. An incomplete list includes both civil and religious records, licenses, license returns, certificates and registers. The marriage entry in the parish register for the Norwegian man that I was researching was not particularly enlightening. It gave me the event date, his name, his bride’s name and the names of their fathers. This just confirmed information that I already had. That is always good but rarely exciting. The marriage entry also gave me the date of their marriage banns.

Marriage banns were announcements made in the parish church stating that a couple intended to marry. The idea was to allow anyone to come forward who knew of a reason why the couple should not marry. Banns were typically read on three consecutive Sundays. Often banns did not produce separate records. If a record exists of them at all, the dates might be found jotted into the marriage record. In my case there were separate banns records produced. If one expected them to just be a list of dates and the couple’s names, they might be a record that you wouldn’t bother to examine. Leave no stone, or document unturned. In this case the record of the banns included not just three banns dates and the names of the couple. The record included his occupation, their birth dates and places, their baptismal dates, their confirmation dates and the names of both of their parents, not just their fathers. The record of the banns may not say that the couple actually married but it did contain much more information than the marriage record itself.

Leave no document unturned.

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War Diary

By Daniel Hubbard | June 22, 2014

We got an email from Germany this week. It said that after 2 1/2 years of work, they had finished the graphic novel that contains part of my children’s great-grandfather’s diary from WWI. The goal is to interest young people in their history, something that we as family historians deal with often. It tells the story of the war that was supposed to end all wars through the eyes and with the words of four people who experienced it—two french, two German, two soldiers, two civilians.

It amazes me not just that we still have those diaries a century later. It amazes me that he kept notes under the conditions that he did and that they survived the rain, the mud, the shooting and the panic.

Walter Bärtel's sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

Walter Bärthel’s sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

It is not always easy for people to comprehend their past. The younger we are, the harder it can be. In some cases we should be glad when it seems so alien to us. The First World War should seem unthinkable, but we still need to understand the unthinkable in our past. Having grown up in the Midwest, I had seen the occasional Civil War statues and plaques in village squares here and there. I have visited Gettysburg with its seemingly never ending monuments. When I moved to France, I soon got the feeling that every village had its monument with name after name running down the sides. It felt familiar and yet more intense, especially knowing that there were people alive at the time who could remember those men whose names were written there.

The email contained a link to a part of a German television program that discussed the book. It was, as I expected, an extraordinary experience to see images of my wife’s grandfather. They were drawn both to tell his story and to let his story represent so many other stories. I felt an even more personal connection when I saw a couple images, made on our scanner, being used to tell a story far bigger than those pictures. Not all family history works that way but it is amazing how often our “little” stories tell stories far, far bigger than themselves.

You can watch the video “Tagebuch:14-18″ (Diary: 1914-1918). Even if you don’t understand German, the pictures convey quite a bit and I can almost imagine that the speaker’s tone at the beginning conveys, “History? What has that got to do with us?” even if you don’t understand that he is saying exactly that.

In the end, I was reminded of a line spoken in a Ken Burns documentary that I can paraphrase as something like—sometimes we do things to each other that serve to turn us into the kind of people that can no longer imagine how such things were possible.

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Nature vs Nurture

By Daniel Hubbard | June 15, 2014

I’m getting ready to give a talk about understanding the use of DNA in genealogical research. It is one thing to just jump right into DNA. It is another to wrap your head around it.

One thing I’ve realized is that I need to point out that there are two types parental role. There is the biological role and the upbringing role—nature and nurture. We are used to those roles being one and the same but they aren’t always. The documents that we use have the potential to tell us about both roles. DNA can only tell us about the people who filled the nature role.

That can be a powerful difference. DNA is not ambiguous about which role is which, as documents can be. Nature is in the DNA, nurture is not. Yet it can also lead down a path that is not truly correct. Once we think that we can use DNA to answer questions like, “Who was his real father?” we have started down that wrong path. The parent that raised a child is just as real as the parent that helped to create the child. Genes are one thing, years of nurturing are another, very real thing. If we are really doing family history, then those parents who filled the nurture role without filling the nature role are people that we need to research, even if they did not pass on their genes to us. Who they were, how they were brought up, who shaped them and raised those that shaped them, are all important influences. They are people who might have made an ancestors life totally different from what it would have been.

DNA can help to unravel the pairs of people who filled the biological role and usually, that tells us about the nurture role as well. Nevertheless, if those biological ancestors aren’t the same as the ones who filled the nurture role, then DNA is silent. In that case, DNA’s strength can become a weakness if we make it so. We make it so if we think that the flow of genes is all that we are researching.

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Washing Hogs

By Daniel Hubbard | June 8, 2014

I didn’t start out to write a two part post but this post has become part 2 of last weeks about the nonfiction contract.

What inspired this post, and last week’s as well, are a couple of recent run-ins with some nineteenth century “nonfiction.” Clearly standards were different over one hundred years ago and the distance created by a century helps us see the nonfiction contract breaking as well. How much credence would you give a work on a surname that begins with page after page about how the people of that name all descend from a specific tribe mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar? How believable is the story of a son about whom nothing is known except that he left many descendants, who is the only child of a mysterious first wife whose death is assumed because it was unrecorded and, by the way, no record of the marriage is known either? If you intended for the reader to believe that, you wouldn’t word it the way I just did but even dressed up nicely and stretched out for several paragraphs, the hogwash alarms sound. The contract is clearly broken. The reader moves on. Anyone can write hogwash but clearly it does not age as well as careful writing based on equally careful research.

Warning: Breaking the nonfiction contract can lead to hogwash

Warning: Breaking the nonfiction contract can lead to hogwash

Those examples are real but one need not take the full plunge into pure hogwash to break the nonfiction contract. So, what happens if you break the nonfiction contract? It is actually an easy question to answer. If the casual reader catches you, then they will stop believing you. That is the kiss of death for a piece of writing meant to convey information to them. The story might be worth reading but part of that worth is that it is reality. They started to read with the understanding that those little bits of information that they might pickup along the way are factual and  that the story is giving them insight into actual occurrences, not the author’s imagination. If they are given reason to doubt, then why should they read?

If a family historian reads your nonfiction narrative, they should already be doubting you. That, though, is a constructive doubt. It ought to be the doubt of a real researcher who wants to go find the evidence for your statements for themselves. If you break the nonfiction contract, the doubt becomes the kind of doubt that means that what you have written may be judged as not being worth the trouble to check. For your writing, that is once again the kiss of death.


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The Nonfiction Contract

By Daniel Hubbard | June 1, 2014

We research our ancestors to learn the facts about them, about their lives, their times, the places they lived, their occupations, and travels. The list, as they say, goes on. First we gather documents that are clearly relevant. Then we gather documents that are more subtly related to our ancestors. Though we may never finish collecting evidence, after a time we have enough to move on. We start to deeply analyze the evidence. We start to combine little clues into bigger conclusions. We know what we think happened here and why we think a path went untaken there.

Eventually, it is not enough to have the information locked up in our files, our databases, our heads. How do we communicate it? We know more than just the evidence. In research the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have our conclusions and our hypotheses. To pass those things along we need to write. Not just any writing will interest a grandchild or a cousin or some relative who has not even been born. So we write stories. We try to make them interesting. we try to make them flow. They are not just any stories, either.

Gerrit_Dou_-_Scholar_sharpening_a_quill_pen_300We write nonfiction not fiction. The line between them can be a fuzzy one but we need to make it sharp and then we cannot cross it. The writer has an unwritten contract, the nonfiction contract, with the reader. The writer can infer but not invent. The reader places their trust in the veracity of the words on the page. The writer cannot violate that trust. If the writer has reason to believe but does not know, that is what must be communicated to the reader. If the evidence is unclear or contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled, the reader ought to taste that mystery as well, not be fed false clarity. I often find as I write the stories of people’s families that I could easily make a story flow and grab the reader but it is easy only if I subtly imply that things are known that are not known. In some cases the written lines themselves might be correct but lead the reader to places between the lines that are simply not quite right. I can also easily tell the story that is factually perfect but that trips over itself as it dots its “i’s” and crosses its “t’s.” Much of the craft of writing the stories that rise from the facts that we uncover is to present the facts, the probabilities and the possibilities so that the reader knows the difference between them at the same time they are drawn in by the narratives of long-gone, reconstructed lives. Or, perhaps, to lead the reader to a possibility without ever stating it, without ever implying that it is fact, and letting them realize what might have happened for themselves.

When we pass on our research, we need to engage but we also need to be aware of the promise that we make to the reader. We have that contract, the nonfiction contract, with them. The reader must be able to trust that they are reading the facts as best we know them. They need to know the difference between the certainties and the likelies.


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By Daniel Hubbard | May 25, 2014

It is a long weekend in the U.S. The one that traditionally starts the summer. For many it is a weekend for getting into the car and driving, sometimes down expressways, sometimes down smaller, winding roads.

As a child one of the things that fascinated me about driving vacations was how once one returned to familiar places, those places seemed different, as if they had been transformed. Apparently part of any feeling of familiarity or strangeness that one experiences in the moment is actually something that has lingered. That still fascinates me.

I have that same experience when observing “now” after researching the past. Returning to the present after poring over places at times when they had no names except for the names of the creeks that flowed through them is a return without familiarity. Returning from a world of canals and towpaths or watermills and grindstones is a return without familiarity. The past lingers and, for a little while, the present seems so strange.

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Records Evolve

By Daniel Hubbard | May 18, 2014

Records evolve. Some records are created to preserve specific information. These certainly change over time. Go far enough back in time and death records might not give the cause of death, something you expect to see today.

Other records are created to gather statistics. These, it seems, evolve much faster. If one simply wants to know the population of a place one might just count. With enough people that can go seriously wrong. Maybe you might count the number of people in each household then add. That’s better and you’d be less likely to lose count but you have no way of knowing if two households with 4 people are really the same one counted twice. You need a way to label each household. You might use one person’s name. Nevertheless, you might want to know how old the people in the household are. Instead of writing a list of ages, you could count how many 0-10-year-olds there are and how many 11-20-year-olds there are in each household. You’d probably end up dividing the age groups by gender as well. After all, if you wan to figure out how big an army you could have now or how big it might be in the near future, it is the number of males that you’d want to know. If you want to figure out how much the population might grow, then it is most useful to know the number of females in different age groups.

As time goes on, you might realize that you could really use more accurate age information so you make smaller and smaller age categories until it takes a lot of space just to write out the categories and then most of them will be empty for most households. At that point, you might decide that it would be simpler to write down everyone’s name and age. That would make it less likely to count someone twice. After all, how do you know if Johnny Doe wasn’t a 6-10 year-old son in one household and a 6-10-year-old nephew in another? You would also need just one space for the age. Do you really need exact ages though? Maybe it would be good enough to round the ages down to the nearest multiple of 5? On the other hand, why do all that rounding? Rounding a number is easy but rounding the 600th number when you’re tired can go wrong. Maybe the exact age would be best anyway.

You might also want to know how people are moving around. It could be good to ask them where they were born but not too accurately. We don’t need a street name. Maybe we could ask what part of the country someone was from. Maybe we could ask if they were from this part of the country or any other part or another country all together. Perhaps it would be interesting to know where someone’s parents were born? That would help to understand migrations. How about asking where someone lived before they came to the place where they are now?

All That Has Been Tried

Every one of those evolutionary steps occurred in census taking somewhere. At first it can seem mysterious. Why would information be recorded that way? Then you stop and think about it. Information costs. The more information you gather, the more you have to process. The more fine grained the information, the more work it is to gather it into statistically useful chunks. From that perspective, it seems obvious to try to gather at little as possible and gather it in a way that is already in those statistically useful chunks.

Soon you start to realize that there are problems with that strategy. If you gather very little information, you have very little way to decide if you have recorded someone once and only once. So you gather a bit more. You also realize that if you gather it in chunks that are too large (Say, every male over the age of 44 in one age group as in early U.S. censuses), then you might have questions that you can’t answer. So you evolve your census by adding age groups until you realize that you’ve taken it to such an extreme that it would be more efficient to get the exact information (It took 4 ledger pages to contain all the categories of the 1840 U.S. census). If you decided to kill two birds with one stone and try to minimize double counting by taking down everyone’s name and get rid of the age categories by taking down exact age, then you end up with something like the 1850 U.S. Census. That wasn’t the only way to go. You could take down everyone’s name but round the ages. You wouldn’t need all those category boxes but you would get the ages in 5-year-wide categories if you rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5 as was done in the 1841 census of Great Britain.

What about place of birth? First, until you take down every name you can’t really take down everyone’s place of birth. There might have been an intermediate stage where “unnamed 17 year-old male” was recorded as being born in New York, or some such thing but I don’t know that any census ever worked that way as a rule. The problem with places in the census has always been the level of detail to record. In the U.S. Federal census, the solution was always state or country of birth. New York chose to be more accurate and recorded the county of birth (if born in New York) in some of their state censuses. That greater accuracy when close to home is a philosophy that comes up in both census taking and in our everyday speech. When we are far from home, naming the closest big city to where we live is close enough.

In Britain there was an intermediate step before simply writing down the name of a place. In 1841 people were asked if they were born within the county where they were currently living. The meaning of a “yes” is clear and you learn the county of birth. The meaning of a “no” is not so clear. That meant that they were currently living within the U.K. country (e.g. Scotland) where they were born but not the same county. If a person was living in a different country of the U.K. from where they were born, there would be no answer at all. Instead the next column over would name the country or, if the person was born outside the U.K. it would simply indicate that the person was foreign. That probably came to seem both confusing and prone to error. Ten years later, exact town and county of birth started to be recorded but they followed the same thinking as the State of New York. That accuracy was only achieved close to home. If you were born in a different country of the U.K. from where you were living, exact information would not be recorded for many years.

What about other locations? The U.S. Federal census started to record parents’ places of birth in 1880 and recorded that until 1930. In 1940 only a subset of people had that information recorded. Who recorded where a person came from immediately before they came to where they were living? Kansas asked that question for a while when many people in their state census were likely to have come to Kansas from outside.

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Not Quite Gone

By Daniel Hubbard | May 11, 2014

I found a reference to a man, Anders, that I was researching. It was a reference to his drowning. I checked the death registers for the date that was given and sure enough, he was listed. So were two other men. There was a note squeezed into the margin. It was hard to read but the meaning was clear. Three farmers had gone out onto the lake in a boat on an early winter day and none of them survived. They were all buried the same day, longer than normal after they died, a hint that perhaps it had taken time to recover the bodies. On the date that he was buried, I found that Anders’s wife gave birth to his final child, a boy she named Anders. A sad and simple story of the kind that just waits for a genealogist to rediscover it.

The day after I discovered that story, it nearly slipped away again. My computer became hot and, unless I squeezed it in just the right way, the screen shimmered pink. Stories, facts, data and little details can all disappear. With a new computer and plenty of backups of the old one, nothing was lost. Data recovery is not always so easy.

Sometimes not everything is backed up but even bringing a little back can bring a thrill. If you ever do Irish research, you know just how much was lost there—so many records burned, destroyed as unnecessary, or reduced to pulp to make new paper. The 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 censuses are commonly regarded as having been totally lost during the Irish Civil War.  Yet in some few cases there was a backup here and a document that survived there and and now the National Archives of Ireland has gathered and collated what remains of censuses enumerated almost two centuries ago.

Other information from those censuses survived in a different way. In 1908 a new pension system was instituted in the United Kingdom. To prove their ages, many wrote for extracts from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. Their names, ages, places of birth and parents still survive in those extracts even if the census returns themselves are long gone. Now what remains of those four censuses and the extracts made from them is online. They are both dazzling to see and saddening to see because they make clear how much information was lost. At least they are not quite gone.

Do you have backups of your data?

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