Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Expanding your view of the puzzle of genealogy to the entire picture

The availability of some types of genealogical records, by itself, often dictates where an ancestral investigation begins. Most casual or undirected research focuses on names and dates in the United States Federal Census and other sources that are highly promoted by the online repositories. The problem is that the investigation frequently ends where it begins, with a cursory examination of popular and readily available sources and no real concept of what to do next. From my standpoint, this occurs, in part, because the standard pedigree chart and the common default view of the online family trees emphasize individuals at the expense of family units.

I had this highlighted to me yesterday when I was helping a patron in the Brigham Young University Family History Library. The patron was looking at the default Detail View of one of his ancestors and asked me why the program had added in a random unrelated family. Here is what he was looking at. (I don't have his family, but the idea is the same with any family shown)

In this view, this is the wife's detail page. James Parkinson is married to Elizabeth Chattell, shown in the left column and Elizabeth's parents are shown on the right. Elizabeth appears as a child in her parents' family with her name bolded.

After looking at this type of entry or similar ones from dozens of other programs, the relationships here seem obvious. However, the patron could not figure out why the second, to him, unrelated family on the right had suddenly appeared. He did not see the surname connection between the wife on the left and her father on the right and further, missed that the wife was listed as a child. It actually took me several minutes of explanation before he got the idea of what was being shown.

This incident was not unique. It occurs frequently as people view our "standard" forms for representing families. I see the same issues with even more frequency when I try to explain the relationships in's Descendancy View.

In thinking about this type of situation, I believe that it comes from emphasis on the individual. We look for names and forget family relationships. In fact, the view shown above does more than that. It obscures interfamily relationships and their relationship to additional generations. Genealogy is not a process of filling in so many blanks in a form.

If you have ever watched a young child try to do a jigsaw puzzle, you will see what I mean. Until the child reaches a certain point in their development, they will pick up random pieces from the pile and try to fit them into any available space in the puzzle. In other words, they do not grasp the overall picture of the puzzle and the fail to see the relationship between adding the pieces and completing the picture. This is exactly the problem experienced by the patron yesterday. He failed to see the pictured formed by the members of the families shown and was trying to fit in random pieces.

This happens all too frequently with online family trees. Yesterday, I also found one of my direct line ancestors on the Family Tree had acquired three new children. This turned out to be exactly the same issue of finding pieces and trying to fit them in without looking at the whole picture. In this case, the three children came from a family with a father who had a name similar to my ancestor and a wife with the same name as my ancestor's wife. Coincidently, both the husband and wife were born in the same places as my ancestors. But the source records and the entries showed that my ancestors had married in Utah and their first child was born in St. George, Washington, Utah. There was a U.S. Census Record for 1880 showing the new family with a one year old baby in St. George. Notwithstanding this record, the children were added to the family showing their birth places in Massachusetts from another 1880 U.S. Census record where the one year old baby did not appear. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on, but I soon deleted the relationship of the three extra Massachusetts children.

This incident is repeated over and over again in the Family Tree and other programs. It would be easy to become overly frustrated with this jungle of poor choices out there, but the causes of this type of seemingly random behavior is inherent in the structure of the programs and forms we use for recording genealogical information. There is nothing in the Family Tree program, or any other program that I am aware of, that would point out the discrepancy between a young family in St. George, Utah and adding three children born in Massachusetts in the 1880s, at a time when traveling between St. George and anywhere in Massachusetts could take an extraordinary effort. At the time, the only way to get across the 300 miles from St. George to Salt Lake City, Utah and a connection to the railroad was by horse or ox-drawn wagon.

But even brushing aside historic transportation issues, the real failure here is looking at names, dates and places without considering the consequences to the family. I only have to go back two more generation on this same Parkinson line to see blatant examples of this problem of focusing on individuals and forgetting the family. Here is another example.

Apparently so far, no one has look at this "family." They have focused on putting the pieces without seeing the picture at all. Do you see what I am talking about? Maybe the marriage date is a typographical error, but the fact that it has been entered and no correction made is an indication of this common malady of looking at the whole picture with the level of a young child doing a jigsaw puzzle.

As the tools for analyzing the Family Tree have become more sophisticated, this type of problem is being demonstrated with more frequency. In this case the date is a typo and it took me only few seconds to correct. Now are we acting like children trying to force the wrong piece into the puzzle?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some Thoughts on Oral History

As genealogists, if we think of oral history, we think of recording the life story of a relative. But actually, oral history has many facets and covers the spectrum from commercial interviews such as sports figures and politicians to academic investigations supporting a historical treatise about a specific event. My early exposure to all of these aspects of creating an audio record came from taking classes involving field techniques in linguistics. As a result, I acquired a Sony reel to reel tape recorder and started making recordings. Unfortunately, military service and other obligations intervened and I only made a very few recordings over the years.

Although making an audio recording of a relative may seem as simple as turning on a recorder and listening, there are some basic considerations that must be observed in order to have a usable product. I've recently been involved in producing a series of oral interviews of older, mostly retired professors from Brigham Young University. Just recently, I was asked to teach a class on oral history at a local conference. As a result of the invitation to teach a class, I did some more in-depth review of the online resources available. What I found was very interesting.

Most of the online resources were directed at oral interviews in conjunction with academic research and what was suggested was distinctively overkill for genealogists. Of course, if the genealogist is seriously considering a formal publication and using the audio interview as a source, the preparation and structure of the interview would be significantly different than a more informal, family history record. I concluded that as a genealogist, I was probably more interested in the stories than the facts of any particular event. I also concluded that I would rely on research and other sources for specific facts about events about a person's life.

I found that nearly all of the resources I consulted online about oral histories were woefully out of date with regard to any references to the recording equipment used. I even found references to maintaining tape recorders. For some time now, I have been using a pocket-sized digital recording device. My current recorder is a small Sony digital recorder that provides superior reproduction quality to the tape recorder I used years ago. I did purchase an inexpensive microphone to add some flexibility to using the recorder. In addition, the files produced are directly downloadable to my computer as MP3 files. My use of the pocket sized digital recorder is a far cry from a formal audio studio approach to recording, but the audio product I capture has good quality and is far easier to accommodate than trying to get the participants into a formal recording studio. I am very impressed with the Story Corps approach to stories, but the logistics of getting a person to a recording booth may outweigh any small advantage of the recording booth method of story preservation.

You can certainly make a valuable oral history recording with a smart phone. But I would suggest that the battery life and quality would be better with a dedicated recorder. But if it means getting an interview or missing the interview, use whatever is available.

Before conducting any oral interview it is absolutely necessary to determine how the recordings are going to be preserved. My current series of interviews are going to be archived in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University. However, a less formal genealogically related oral interview would necessarily have to be preserved by the family. There are many online sources for storing audio files and making them available to family members, but ultimately, it is important to treat the audio files just as you would any other computer file and migrate the format and maintain the file in a way that it can be preserved for the family.

Because my current series of interviews is being archived in a library, necessarily, I need a formal release from each of the participants. I am not a huge fan of making recordings, even of relatives, without their knowledge and or their consent. By maintaining a slightly more formal setting, I can avoid embarrassing or undesirable content. With some exceptions, the best place to conduct the interview is where the person being interviewed is most comfortable, usually in their own home. It is helpful to have quiet surroundings, but with the new technology this is not absolutely necessary.

Almost uniformly, online instructions for conducting an oral interview include a list of detailed questions and areas of interest to cover with the interviewee. I have found these questions to be stultifying and counterproductive. My philosophy in making oral history files is to allow the participant to tell the stories. I try to ask as few questions as possible and any questions are phrased as suggested topics. I have found that if I ask a specific question involving a date, an event, or the name of a person, the participant will become uncomfortable and the interview is essentially over. Some genealogist become disturbed because the content of the interview is not strictly accurate. If the genealogist feels the need for historical accuracy, they should transcribe the interview and add interlinear comments or footnotes correcting the information provided. The purpose, as I see it, for conducting such interviews is to solicit family stories and to preserve the voice of the participant. Subsequently, I am not all that concerned with accuracy, I am far more interested in the stories.

It is also important not to direct the interview into very personal areas. Let the participant become comfortable with the interview process and then asked general questions allowing the participant to supply the details they feel are important.

If possible, conduct the interview in one to two hour segments or even shorter time periods. Do not be concerned that the participant will repeat stories or events. Most of the time, the second or third retelling brings out details omitted in the first account.

Here are some online resources I suggest for conducting an oral interview and some resources with all types of audio recordings as examples. Remember, as I said previously, many of the suggestions concerning hardware are out of date.

·      The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide – out of date but useful
·      Oral History in the Digital Age – Oral History Association
·      Oral History Resources – Society of American Archivists
·      Library of Congress
·      American Rhetoric
·      Voices from the Dust Bowl – Library of Congress
·      H-OralHist

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Oldest Footage of London Ever

Thanks to John D. Reid of Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections for the link to this absolutely fascinating video.

I just subscribed to their channel also. I am very interested in the modern/historic comparisons. This is a must see video for its historic perspective.

Genealogical Crisis of the Month: Government Destruction or Restriction of Records

After writing my short quasi-satirical piece on the Genealogical Crisis of the Month Club, I found that my example of the crisis concerning governmental restrictions limiting access to information was a real concern. With some small effort, I tracked down a bill before the Parliament of Australia entitled the "Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015." The online news reports of the effects of this bill are drastic. Here is one such article on the ExtremeTech website, "New Australian bill could outlaw VPNs in bid to stamp our Hulu, Netflix 'piracy'." A "VPN" is a Virtual Private Network or a network that uses a public telecommunication infrastructure, such as the Internet, to provide remote offices or individual users with secure access to their organization's network. See What is happening here is that the TV and movie companies are claiming, without actually proving, that Netflix and Hulu are violating their copyrights. Rather than forcing the companies to prove their claims, the government is contemplating passing a bill to limit online access to the services by giving the companies the right to shut down or limit the Australian public's access to Netflix and Hulu.

It may seem a jump from limiting access to some TV shows and movies to limiting genealogists from accessing records about dead people, but it is really all about the same conflicting interests: copyright, privacy and government control. You might not have noticed at all, but there was a recent controversy over the availability of the United States, Social Security Administration's Death Master File and the resulting Social Security Death Index or SSDI. The gist of that ongoing controversy was the fact that the Social Security Numbers of dead people, including dead children, from the SSDI were being used to generate false claims to the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than simply have the Internal Revenue Service check the SSDI or the Death Master File to verify the validity of Social Security Numbers, the United States Congress, after hearing testimony, decided to limit access to the records to everyone. Companies who were putting the SSDI online, such as and were accused of "aiding and abetting the fraud." In other words, those who were simply providing public record information were the "cause" of the people who were illegally using the information. So, just as it apparently happening in Australia, the United States Legislature passed a bill limiting access to the records to the public rather than addressing the root of the problem, the lack of competence of the Internal Revenue System. This was done without one shred of evidence that anyone had actually used either or to defraud the government. See H.R.295 - Protect and Save Act of 2013113th Congress (2013-2014). For a more current summary of this Bill, which was passed on 26 December 2014, see "Last Chance to Comment on Rules Regarding Social Security Death Index Access."

The practical effect of the passage of the law is that Social Security Numbers have disappeared from the records supplied by etc. in their SSDI listings. Ordering a copy of the person's SSA 711, Application for Social Security became much more difficult and expensive.

You may have also heard that the 1890 U.S. Federal Census was lost in a fire. That is true for part of the records, but what happened to most of the records was that they were destroyed by the U.S. Government. See "First in the Path of the Firemen"The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1 By Kellee Blake.

I could go on and on about this subject. There is no question in my mind that the diseases talked about each month in the old Reader's Digest and the current diseases and conditions highlighted in my current AARP Magazine are real, the question, of course, is how do we as individuals react to and confront this ongoing litany of crisis? If I have learned one thing in the last 40 years of being a lawyer is that there is almost always a work around for any disaster: unless you end up dead, you fight back. If you want a place to start for worrying about the loss of genealogically important records, you can start with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and oh, by the way, you might discover that no one really knows when it happened. See Wikipedia: Destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Join the Genealogical Crisis of the Month Club

Genealogy is all too placid. What we really need to liven things up is a Genealogical Crisis-of-the-Month Club! One of my very early, distinct memories is when I was living in a very small town in Eastern Arizona, far away from the civilized world, was of seeing a large airplane fly high above my head and being worried that it would drop an Atom Bomb on me. Notwithstanding the fact that the fear was ungrounded, it was real.

When I was a little older, I used to read the Reader's Digest. The one amazing thing about this magazine (don't get me started on Condensed Books) was that every month, month after month, they seemed to come up with a new disease threat. In my impressionable youth, I was constantly worried about symptoms and whether or not I had that Month's malady.

As I grew much older, my fears and concerns began to spread to such things as terrorists attacks, environmental collapse and global warming. Now, I have added the burden of a genealogical crisis to the litany of things I have to worry about. Now, let's see. What can I worry about today? Maybe I should start worrying about governments shutting down all the libraries, archives and limiting all the records due to "privacy" concerns. This, of course, will be caused by the "Privacy for the Deceased" Action Committee. After all, we don't have enough to worry about, do we?

Is there a better way to document complex familial relationships?

By Sg647112c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I recently got into an exchange with genealogist David McLean. David wrote to me outlining some of his ideas on the need to simplify the concept of relationships usually expressed by this Table of Consanguinity shown above. Personally, I cannot remember a time when I did not understand the idea of cousins once or twice removed. But as I got into teaching genealogy, rather than just doing it, I quickly learned that most people (nearly all?) were mystified by the concept.

It is important to understand that this structure is entirely Western European based. The terms used to designate relationships, which may appear to some to be "self-evident" are culturally determined and vary considerably throughout the world. We also get into the illusion of cultural superiority when we think that there is one "right" way of defining a world view. I guess occasionally, we run into a world view that differs from our own and we have wars and strife over the differences. My own ancestral history has some twists and turns that are not well accepted by the mainstream of our European-based culture, at least in the United States.

Although even in the mainstream of life in the United States today, issues such as polygamy seem rather "well settled," we actually live in a highly complex relationship structure that doesn't fit well into this Table of Consanguinity. For example, what relationship do I have to my brother's former wife? Since she is no longer an "in law" because there is no legal relationship between her and her former husband, what do I call her? Does the divorce affect my relationship with my nieces and nephews? What do I call the second wife of my uncle? Are her children, not the children of my uncle, my cousins? Are the children of my Great-grandfather's second wife, the one I am not related to by blood, my cousins? How do I explain that one cousin and I share the same Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother, but another cousin shares only my Great-grandfather?

Even though we would like to believe that the straight-forward chart above "explains it all," in fact, it is merely an artificial construct that works only within a very narrow and confined context that does not easily make allowances for the great variety of relationships that actually exist in our society. In addition, the chart fails to tell us anything about the real relationships, meaning the socially initiated relationships that exist and are the basis of the practical realities of our lives. For example, I may have almost no contact with or involvement with various family members who are "close" relations and yet have a very close relationship with other family members who are not a closely related.

Genealogy has a distinct tendency to paint family relationships, at least in the United States, with a broad, ill-defined brush. As I have written many times in the past, our genealogy programs do a poor job of preserving and documenting these "outside of the box" relationships.

Is there a way to cut through this haze of relationships and develop a common terminology? Maybe. I do think that the concerns expressed by David McLean and others are legitimate. But linguistically, I doubt that any contrived set of terms or relationships imposed by genealogists on their databases will have much of an effect on the overall concept of relationship in our country or in any other county.

The main thrust of the concerns expressed by David McLean were directed at the results of hearing things such as "a 15th cousin, three generations removed. There is a program, currently popular among some interested in genealogy, called Relative Finder from Brigham Young University (BYU). Here is a screenshot of the startup page.

In addition, there are many other programs that purport to reveal how you are related to various famous people, both current celebrities and historic figures. All of these programs have the fatal flaw of assuming that the database used to calculate these extreme relationships are at all accurate. For example, the current local fad to use Relative Finder to establish distant relationships using the Family Tree ignores the fact that those relationships are far from settled, documented or even presumably accurate. These facts are ignored with the excuse that these types of programs are a way to get people involved with genealogy. Personally, I am not sure how my interest in genealogy was increased when I disproved a family story that I was related to Daniel Boone, but that is discussion for another post.

That said, I think David has some interesting and very helpful ideas and I certainly agree that David's explanation is a great help in understanding the sometimes impenetrable jargon!  In the context of programs such as Relative Finder, David's concept are extremely useful. He says,
The key thing to remember is that for two people to be related they must share at least one common ancestor. In other words, if I look at my family tree and find and the same individual as one of your
ancestors, we are related! If we share parents, we are called siblings. If we share a 1st generation grandparent we are 1st cousins; if we share a 2nd generation grandparent, we are second cousins; if we share a 3rd grandparent, we are third cousins; if we share an n-th grandparent, we are n-th cousins. (If we share only a grandfather, but not his wife, we are half-cousins, etc. but that is getting more technical.)
It is fairly straight forward to visualize that my 1st cousin’s children would be my “1st Cousin 1 Generation Removed” because they have one more “hop” to reach the our common ancestor. Their children likewise would be my “1st Cousin 2 Generations Removed” (one additional hop). But what about relationships the other way? 
My aunt is nothing more than a “Sibling 1 Generation Removed”. This means she is a sibling to one of my direct ancestors. A “1st Cousin 15 Generations Removed” is nothing more than a 1st cousin to one of my direct line ancestors. In this case my 13th generation grandparent, (i.e. 2 hops to a grandparent, so 15 becomes 13). 
This is especially useful in visualizing relationships from the BYU Relative finder. Say one of my friends is my “12th Cousin 3 Generations Removed”. This means that her 12th grandparent is my 15th grandparents (she has 14 hops to get to the common ancestor. I have 17 hops to the same common ancestor). This just means nothing more than that her ancestors, on average, were just a bit younger than my ancestors when my direct line ancestor was born (I have more hops). There no more mystery! 
And finally, using the BYU Relative Finder I learn that I am “2nd Cousin 8 Generations” removed to George Washington. What exactly does this mean? It simply means that George Washington is a 2nd cousin to one of my direct line ancestors. Likewise, if Albert Einstein is my 1st Cousin 3 Generations removed, he would be a 1st cousin to one of my direct line ancestors (pretty cool huh!)
He goes on to criticize the use of the term "great," when applied to grandparents. Here is what he suggests:
The complexity all comes from our habit in the English language (and many other western languages) of inserting a "great-" before a grandfather, thus making the cousin relationships have an "off by one" problem. It?s hard to remember that if we share a 2nd great-grandfather, we are third cousins. Just don't use the great, he is your 3rd generation grandfather, and we are 3rd cousins. Everyone immediately understands and relationships are so much easier to visualize.
This is something I have been doing for years. I refer to my extended grandparents as my "3rd great-grandfather," but David takes this a step further and takes out the "great." Good suggestion. He goes on to talk about "removed" relationships:
The same concept extends to "removed" relationships. The removed refers to the number of generations removed a relationship is. If my 3rd grandfather is your 5th grandfather, we are 3rd cousins (the lower number) 5 minus 3 equals 2 generations removed; if my 8th grandfather is your 9th grandfather, we are 8th cousins 1 generation removed, etc. The complexity comes from our habit of saying "times removed." They are not "times removed" whatever a "time-removed" is. Just say "generations removed" and everyone will immediately understand you and appreciate the clarity.
This is certainly an interesting way of explaining a complex system. Thanks to David McLean for the example and suggestion for yet another blog post.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Secret of Erikoussa -- A Remarkable Genealogical Story

Here is another fabulous story from Here is an excerpt from the notice I received about the story.
MyHeritage has been working closely with Emmy Award winning writer, producer and author, Yvette Manessis Corporon. About a year ago Yvette published a book called "When The Cypress Whispers". The book is fictional but some of it is based on true stories she grew up hearing from her grandmother, including the secret of the Greek Island of Erikoussa. 
When the Nazis invaded Corfu, most of the Jewish citizens were killed, but a tailor by the name of Savas was able to escape with his three daughters, and a girl called Rosa, to the nearby Island of Erikoussa. Savas had customers and acquaintances on the Island, but what was incredible was that the entire Island joined forces - at risk of death - and gave refuge to Savas and his girls, and kept their identity secret from the Nazis, for the duration of the war.  
Yvette's grandmother was one of those Islanders. She was good friends with one of the girls, and so Yvette turned to MyHeritage to ask if we could help find the family. We did, and an emotional (although virtual) reunion took place between Yvette, and Rosa's sons.  
How Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage Founder and CEO found the descendants - is a true example of genealogy detective work at its finest, but I don't want to ruin it for you - I invite you to watch this segment from Israeli prime time news (with english subtitles embedded) to see for yourself:
See also the following article.,7340,L-4647522,00.html

This is not the end of the story, as the notice goes on to say:
This is an unfolding story, there are still puzzle pieces we're putting together, but until then it's great that the heroism of the islanders has come to light, and we were happy to be able to connect two families with a remarkable shared history.  
In June these families will be reuniting on the Island for the first time since the war. They will be attending a special ceremony in which the Islanders' bravery will be recognized, and an award presented to Erikoussa.