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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Where is the "Hidden or Deep Web?"
Sometimes the deep web or dark web is portrayed as something mysterious or even evil, but here is a definition from the Association of Internet Research Specialists about the hidden Internet that explains what and where it is.
When you hear or read about the hidden or deep web, it’s anything behind a paywall, something with a password, or dynamically generated content on the fly and didn’t have a permanent URL. These are the things you are not going to find with a traditional Google search. So, where can you look? Thankfully, there are deep web search engines available on the web.
Of course, there is a component of the Internet that is used for bad or illegal purposes, but a good analogy is that the Internet is like a huge city. You can find a lot of things that are helpful in a huge city, but there are likely dangerous places that you would be better off not visiting. How do you find what you want while avoiding the "bad" sections of town? The main way is to stay on clear and public areas rather than blindly "surfing" the web. If you look for evil things you will find them, so don't look.

For genealogists, one example of searching the deep web is looking for records in libraries and university special collections. Very few of these cataloged items will show up in a general Google search. The most obvious search engine for locating research materials in libraries around the world is As genealogists or family historians, we should be familiar with libraries and archives. But as I have seen recently here in Maryland while working at the Maryland State Archives digitizing records, the libraries and archives may still be working with their data a little bit back in the past. Here is a sight I saw during a recent visit to the Library of Congress.

I also see a huge card catalog every day at the Maryland State Archives. No Google search is going to help you find your records if they are still cataloged on a 3 x 5 card. When I write about all the records that are available online, there is always a caveat. There are many records that will not show up in a Google search and there are many others that are not yet discoverable by searching on the Internet.

What all this really boils down to is that research is open-ended. You really never get to the end of the possibilities. I have been searching for my Tanner ancestors in Rhode Island for years and yet I still haven't taken the time to go visit the libraries and archives in Rhode Island so I am undoubtedly missing something. Until I actually spend the time to visit those local libraries and archives, I will likely be missing something. But on the other hand, to make a cursory search of the Internet resources and think you have found everything online is delusional.

Now, I found that there is a book about my Tanner family and the only copy I know about is in a library in Florida. Is it worth the trip?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Resources for Reading Old Handwriting

The ability to decipher handwriting is an essential tool for the research genealogist and the further you research back in time, the more necessary the skill of reading the handwritten documents becomes.

There are two major challenges in reading old handwriting: the changes in the script and the penmanship of the writer. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to learn how to read old handwriting other than hard work and practice. However, there are some good resources to aid in your efforts. I would start with the help page from the Indexing Project. Here is a screenshot of part of the page.!/lang=undefined&title=Alphabet%20(Secretary%20Hand)
Here are the resources to the websites listed on the page. Most of these items are on the page linked above but some are links to other websites.
Books about old handwriting are also helpful. Here is a selection of books you might consider. I do not usually find these books in a local library but you can search for a library that might have the book on 

  • Barrett, John, and David Iredale. Discovering Old Handwriting. Princes Risborough: Shire, 2001.
  • Brook, G. L. An Introduction to Old English. Manchester [England: University Press, 1955.
  • Cope, Emma Elizabeth Thoyts. How to Decipher and Study Old Documents: Being a Guide to the Reading of Ancient Manuscripts. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978.
  • Essex Record Office, and Hilda Elizabeth Poole Grieve. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750, with Transcripts and Translations. Part I: From Essex Parish Records. Part II: From Other Essex Archives. Chelmsford? Essex Education Committee, 1954.
  • Gardner, David E, and Frank Smith. Old English Handwriting, Latin, Research Standards and Procedures. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966.
  • Hamilton, Charles. The Signature of America: A Fresh Look at Famous Handwriting. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
  • Jaunay, Graham. Cracking the Code of Old Handwriting, 2016.
  • ———. How to Read Old Handwriting. Glandore, SA: Adelaide Proformat, 2006.
  • Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973.
  • Leftwich, Ralph Winnington. Shakespeare’s Handwriting and Other Papers. Worthing: The Worthing Gazette Co., 1921.
  • McLaughlin, Eve. Reading Old Handwriting. Haddenham: Eve McLaughlin, 2007.
  • Murray, Sabina J. Deciphering Old Handwriting & Commonly Found Abbreviations. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1999.
  • National Archives (Great Britain). The National Archives Palaeography Tutorial: (how to Read Old Handwriting). Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK: National Archives, 2003.
  • Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting, 2008.
  • Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth. How to Read Old Documents. London: Phillimore, 1980.
  • Ward Lock Educational Co. The Old Fashioned Handwriting Book: The No-Nonsense Hand-Writing Book to Help You Practise a Writing Style. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1981.
I took a class from Kip Sperry at Brigham Young University and used his book as the text. It was a very good class and helped me get started with deciphering some really old, difficult handwriting. But sometimes you just have to study it out. I usually start by staring at the handwriting for a while and then come back to it the next day and keep staring and trying to see the letters until finally it starts to click and I can begin to see words and letters. It sometimes takes a week or more of this practice to make out what was written. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Genealogy is Basically Collaboration

The stereotypical idea of a genealogist is an older, sort of out-of-touch with reality, dowdy aunt or uncle that collects and relates stories and spends time gathering names and dates about your family. He or she is usually the person you want to avoid at a family gathering. As I have mentioned several times before, the demographic for this blog is usually an older person with a university degree and with no children at home. I suggest we start to move beyond the stereotype and realize that genealogy is dramatically changing. 

The main problem with the old model genealogist is that he or she worked alone. The new version of a genealogist is someone who is definitely part of a larger, online genealogical community and is collaborating with a network of others who are researching the same family lines. We no longer have to rely on the interest level of our close relatives, we can now reach out to people who share our interest and are willing to cooperate in researching shared family lines. 

What is strange about this "new" model is that the lone genealogist was only lone because of a lack of ability to network with others who shared the same interest. In the past, you could join a genealogical society, but it would be pure chance that anyone in your circle of genealogists was working on the same family lines you were working on. With today's online family trees, finding relatives is usually pretty simple. Deciding you want to talk to them and collaborate with them is still a challenge. 

I "grew up" in total isolation from anything that could be considered to be a genealogical community. My family was mostly allergic to genealogy. The mere mention of the word made most of them break out in hives. Today, I have a huge circle of people who are working on my ancestral lines and helping me to find sources and making progress with the "end-of-line" ancestors. 

For many years now, I have been immersed in collaborating with a number of people who share my interest and enthusiasm for research. Unfortunately, I still encounter a considerable number of genealogists who think that they own their genealogy and are afraid that others will steal their information. Some are so concerned about protecting their information that even when I am trying to help them, they are afraid to let me see their pedigree chart or look at the sources they have copied. 

The irony is that genealogy is about families. The isolation comes from failing to involve those around you even when they do not have your level of interest. It is true that some families are dysfunctional, but in many cases, it is possible to find those who share an interest in the photos, stories, and memorabilia but may not have an interest in the dates and places. 

You might think that the benefits of collaboration are so obvious that it would be natural for genealogists to freely share their information with family members. But my own experience leads me to believe that there are more people out there who are worried about protecting their data than is logical. One factor that I see that will break down this isolation is the movement to use DNA testing as a component of genealogical research. Once a person has "relatives" that they did not previously know and who are related by "blood" it makes the idea of genealogical research take on a new dimension. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Plagues, Wars, and Natural Disasters: Genealogical Research Hazards

It is not too uncommon for genealogists to encounter a situation where a family seems to vanish from the historical records. In many situations such as these, it is important to have a sense of history. Your ancestor or even his entire family may have been the victims of a plague, a war or a natural disaster. There are quite a number of timelines online, such as this one, that shows when the major plagues went through Europe. This one is from Wikipedia: Timeline of plague.
The problem for genealogists is that so many people may have died that there were no records made of the deaths. Today, we refer to international epidemics that cross country boundaries as pandemics. A little history might be worth a lot of worry and research. For example, if your Irish ancestor showed up in America between 1845 and 1849 they probably came because of the Irish Potato Famine. During this time period over a million people died in Ireland more than a million migrated to America. Tracing your Irish ancestors back to the homeland might be a major challenge. You can add to that problem the fact that in "the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles (8 km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society." See Wikipedia: Great Famine (Ireland).  My own Irish ancestors left Ireland just after the famine ended.
In addition to plagues, epidemics, and pandemics, wars can also result in the disappearance of an individual or a family. Once again, a little bit of historical research may disclose that your ancestors were living in a war zone and that their disappearance may be attributable to a war.

1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer. The severe climatic change was caused by the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in what is now Indonesia. Here is one account of what happened:
Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots .... In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality. See Atkins, William Giles. 1887. History of the town of Hawley, Franklin County, Massachusetts, from its first settlement in 1771 to 1887: with family records and biographical sketches. West Cummington, Mass: W.G. Atkins, Page 86.
 Gaining a historical perspective about your ancestors will pay off in your increased ability to find pertinent records and thereby increase the accuracy of your research. If a family or individual seems to disappear from the record, there is usually a reason and taking the time to do some background historical research make the disappearance resolvable. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Saga of Francis Cooke on the FamilySearch Family Tree

One of my ancestors is Francis Cooke who was a passenger on the Mayflower. He is what I call a revolving door ancestor. I am watching him on Family Tree and every week I get an update of the changes made to his entry. He currently has 57 sources listed and 50 Memories. There are few people who were born in the 1500s that are more completely documented than the Mayflower passengers. The General Society of Mayflower Descendants or Mayflower Society has an extensive set of books called the "Silver Books" documenting every one of the accepted Mayflower passengers. Every statement about every passenger has been evaluated and compared to original documents and records. There is very little controversy about any of the entries in those books. If any new information is discovered, it is carefully reviewed by the Society's genealogists and added to the books. It takes years to get an alternative theory accepted.

You would have to dedicate years of your life and perhaps thousands of dollars to even get to the point where you could begin to find any new information about any one of the Mayflower passengers.

That brings us to the situation that exists with Francis Cooke in the Family Tree. Every week someone has made changes to his entry and someone else has to go through the changes and reverse the unsupported information added.

There has been some talk at the FamilySearch about requiring a source before making any changes to the Family Tree. With entries such as Francis Cooke and other individuals who are extensively documented there is no question that sources have been added. I do get unsupported changes to my ancestors almost constantly, but in this case, these individuals need to be evaluated and either made Read Only or some other step taken to avoid the colossal waste of time that it takes to maintain these well-documented individuals.

Another possible solution has been suggested that someone from the family be appointed the official gatekeeper for some of these people. The gatekeeper or gatekeeper committee would be the only ones allowed to make changes to the individual.

Some mechanism needs to be put in place to stop these revolving doors. The integrity and credibility of the Family Tree is really what is at stake.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Medieval Genealogy Once Again Becomes a Concern

Oriel College CharterPublic Domain

The period of time from about 500 A.D. until approximately 1500 A.D. in Europe is variously called the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. Printing was introduced into Europe by Johannes Gutenberg beginning in 1439 and by 1500 it is estimated that by 1500 printers had produced approximately 20 million volumes. Before that printing revolution occurred all of the documents had to be laboriously copied by hand.

Every so often, I run into questions about extending family lines back before about 1600 and this reminds me to write about doing genealogical research back into the dim past. Because of this, I have to return to a statement made by Robert C. Gunderson, Senior Royalty Research Specialist of the Church Genealogical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made in an article in the Church's Ensign magazine back in February of 1984. The article is entitled, "I've heard that some people have extended their ancestral lines back to Adam. Is this possible" If so, is it necessary for all of us to extend our pedigrees back to Adam?" The key statement made in that short article is as follows:
The simplest answer to both questions is No. Let me explain. In thirty-five years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. By assignment, I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years. I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (c. A.D.450–A.D. 752).
The full answer to the question would also have to take into account the preparation and background you would need to extend a valid pedigree back before approximately 1550 A.D. As I have pointed out in past posts, you would need to know Latin and a variety of other old European languages, you would have to have completely documented your ancestral line back to the starting point in the 1500s and you would have had to have spent years studying the history of Europe. Then and only then you could start to do some research. Oh, I almost forgot. You would have to learn how to read the handwriting.

So why are there so many ancestral lines extending into the Middle Ages in online family trees? The basic reason is ignorance. These lines have been copied out of generally available books of European Royalty. If you do think you have a line or two that goes back to European Royalty, then why aren't you rich and living in a castle? That is not a trivial question. But I always note that Royalty had children and some of us must be related.

By the way, if you really would like to get started with Medieval manuscripts, I found a rather extensive list, if not slightly out of date, of the major digital websites. It is entitled, "Medieval Manuscripts on the Web" and it is dated January 6, 2017, and it comes from Siân Echard at the Department of English of the University of British Columbia.

Gunderson in his article above mentions examining hundreds of pedigrees. I can say I have examined thousands of pedigrees and with very, very rare exceptions the documentation for all those pedigrees (including my own on several online family tree programs, essentially end with a lack of documentation in the 1700s with a few going back into the 1600s and even fewer going back into the late 1500s. Almost uniformly, these early pedigrees are copied from a variety of lists and sources without the benefit of any original research.

Where is the largest list of European Royalty and Nobility? It is on the website in the Genealogies section.

From my experience, most genealogists are stopped in the early 1800s or possibly the late 1700s with a "brick wall" at that point. In most cases, these lines all end with a lack of any substantial documentation and a jump to an ancestor with the same surname and no documented connection.

Believe me, you can spend your entire life doing research in the 1700s and 1800s.

Saving Memories Forever Website Closing May 31st, 2018

It is always sad to see a member of the greater genealogical community have to stop working. In a  message from the developers and operators of the website, the developers explained that the information on the website is not lost, but must be downloaded to your local computer. Here is a screenshot of the website. By the way, they were winners of the RootsTech 2014 Developer's Challenge.

If you need help or have any questions, use the Contact Us link on the website to ask for help. The link is at the bottom of the startup page of the website.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Experience in Social Networking

One of the most interesting things about my social networking experience is the fact that of all my activities, I am most endorsed by the community for Social Media over any other activity. I recently tabulated by social networking views from those programs that provide statistics and in the last month, I have had over 85,000 views plus whatever from Facebook and other venues that don't supply analytics. In a busy month, I can have well over 100,000 views. This blog has had more than 136,000 views in one month. However, numbers do not tell much at all about how social networking fits into my life. These numbers do not count all the other posts on,, and other websites.

As I have written in the past, blogging is undergoing some major changes and genealogy blogging is part of the changes that are occurring. But that is another topic for another time.

Of course, I have to mention the over 100 webinars and presentations on mainly for the Brigham Young University Family History Library. That could be considered to be social networking also. The Brigham Young University Family History Library has over 6,621 subscribers and presently over 430,000 views. My most watched webinar now has over 33,000 views.

As an additional note, with this post, I will have published 10,610 blog posts from my three main blogs, not counting all the other writing for FamilySearch and other entities. This kind of reminds me of an analogy of the infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters. It would seem that I might have said something significant even if what I write is randomly generated.

I realize that those numbers are tiny compared to others in the social networking world, but the impact of talking to people and meeting with people who share a common interest with me has changed my life dramatically over the years. When I moved to Annapolis, Maryland, I already had contact with people who I had never met personally but had written to and communicated with for years. As a side note, if I fail to write for a few days for whatever reason, I sometimes get inquiries as to the status of my health. That is a really nice part of writing so much.

How does social networking fit into my life? That is a good question. For me, social networking is a background that maintains a connection to a large "family" of acquaintances and friends. It is also one of the main ways I keep in contact with my real family of children and grandchildren. In a much greater sense, as I have written previously, writing online is like carrying on a conversation with the world. It still amazes me that I can sit at my computer and write from Mesa, Arizona or Provo, Utah or Annapolis, Maryland or any other location including countries like Canada and Costa Rica and maintain this ongoing conversation for more than 11 years. By the way, this is mostly a one-way conversation because I never seem to generate a lot of responses unless I write something really outrageous.

How much time do I spend on social networking? That is a hard question to answer because technically my blog writing is considered social networking and I do spend a significant amount of time writing. In a greater sense, all of my contributions to over 25 published books on genealogical research could also fit into the category of social networking. Fortunately, I can still type rather quickly and my computer programs correct most spelling and typographical errors although a few do creep in and as some would say, obviously. Actually, since I think about topics and wake up with ideas, I suppose my mind keeps working all night and all day.

Who do I think I am writing to, i.e. who do I think my audience is? Beats me. I really never think about an audience unless I am involved in a tirade on one subject or another and in that case, I am directly my writing to those who are least likely to read what I write. In fact, most of my writing is directed at people who will never read what I write. Hmm.

If you take a class or read a book about writing or becoming an author or writer, there is a lot of drivel about "finding your voice." Have I found my voice? It really isn't something I think about. I do know that most of my English teachers and my other teachers over the years would probably roll over in their graves if they found out how much I have written over the past years.

I have written a couple of novels and a lot of poetry, but none of that gets published. The real heart of all my writing is a passion for genealogy and family history. I literally live every day of my life with an endless multitude of ancestors looking over my shoulder. Sometimes, I like to pick on one or two particular ancestors, but overall, I think they are acting in concert or in committees or whatever and directing my life. I can only ignore them at my peril.

How long can this all go on? That is the question. I am getting old enough to realize that there is an end out there sooner or later. We will take that issue one day at a time.

Oh, what about the photography? That actually makes a few dollars a year. It is also a passion, but one in the background. I now carry a camera everywhere I go and so taking photos is just part of living and breathing. You would think that I didn't have much time for anything else, but I do have a lot of other interests and presently a full-time job digitizing records at the Maryland State Archives for and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Do I ever think about writing about something else? Yes, but I avoid politics.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Can Genealogists Be Replaced by a Computer Program?

Recent technological developments in the larger international genealogical community compel me to address the question raised in the title of this post once again. To answer this question, we have to go back into the history of computers to the very beginning. I will start with a quote from Ada Lovelace, usually acknowledged as the first computer programmer:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us to making available what we are already acquainted with.
The Analytical Engine was a machine developed by Charles Babbage beginning in 1837. Here is a description of the Analytical Engine from the Wikipedia Article: Analytical Engine.
The Analytical Engine was a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer designed by English mathematician and computer pioneer Charles Babbage.[2][3] It was first described in 1837 as the successor to Babbage's difference engine, a design for a mechanical computer.[4] The Analytical Engine incorporated an arithmetic logic unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory, making it the first design for a general-purpose computer that could be described in modern terms as Turing-complete.[5][6] In other words, the logical structure of the Analytical Engine was essentially the same as that which has dominated computer design in the electronic era.[3]
I am leaving in all the links in these quotes because of the technical nature of this post.

I can restate the question in the title as follows:

Is there any activity done by genealogists in compiling a sourced family tree that cannot be equally as well performed by a computer program of sufficient complexity? If a program can be designed to replace genealogists what would be its limitations if any?

My own answer to this question is that over the years, I have come to believe that nearly all the work presently done by genealogists at all levels with the possible exception of biographies, oral interviews, and other personally oriented activities could be substantially done by a complex database connected to a sufficiently sophisticated program.

How could this be accomplished? What developments would have to occur before such a system would be fully operational? The key components to such a system are already being implemented. For example, recent presentations by Gilad Japhet, the CEO of outline a method by which the present MyHeritage Record Matches will be enhanced with DNA tests and linked to sources in existing family trees to predict the common ancestor of matching DNA results. (See also
Perspectives on Combining Genealogy and Genetics)
Let's suppose that I got a Record Match from MyHeritage that said something like this:
This record matches your ancestor xxxx and you also have a DNA match with these people that have this same ancestor in their family trees. 
How much more likely would I be to give credence to the Record Match? What if the above statement added the following:
This record matches your ancestor xxxx and you also have a DNA match with these people that have this same ancestor in their family trees and this is a diagram of the ancestral line connecting you to and the other people to this probable ancestor. 
Let me illustrate another way that this might occur. Let's start with me. What basis is there for me to believe that I have identified my parents? I have an official birth certificate but there is an outside possibility that I was adopted. In my case, I remember the birth of my youngest sister and her DNA test matches me as the oldest sibling. So, the DNA test in conjunction with a substantial amount of documentary evidence creates a high degree of certitude that a specific relationship exists. The challenge here, of course, is that as we go back in time, there are fewer records and DNA tests are less accurate. Now let's suppose that I document my grandparents and DNA tests show that my research is accurate. As we continue back, the information becomes more subject to my judgment as a genealogist. But suppose that all the records I would use to discover my ancestry were digitized and online and that millions of my relatives had taken genealogical DNA tests. Wouldn't it be possible to extend my pedigree back to the limit of the available records? Couldn't these records and the DNA results be combined and produce a core pedigree with a substantial reliability?

What is lacking? The most important missing link in this projected possibility is reliable genealogically oriented handwriting recognition programs. However, important progress has and will be made in this regard. There is really no such thing as genealogical "proof." Claimed proofs are nothing more or less than educated conclusions based on a selection of sources. All genealogical conclusions are subject to the existing records and documents. Additional documentation could change almost any conclusion.

Would you trust a pedigree created by a computer program? My position is that it would be no different than what we have now. I inherited an immense pedigree going back as far as 18 generations on some lines. After 36 years of genealogical research, I have revised and corrected with thousands of sources almost every one of those inherited family lines. Much of my current progress is based on record hints from the large online genealogy companies. My family tree is now well documented back at least six generation on all my family lines. Anyone tapping into that information will already have well-documented sources and if they have a DNA test tying into any of my lines they have the basic components for making additional advances through competent research.

What is the likelihood that this will happen? Right now, the genealogical community is fragmented into different factions based on geography, commercial programs, and other factors. It is not at all likely that one company or group will "corner the market" on genealogical data or DNA test results. Right now, has the lead with over 100 million subscribers and an active DNA testing component. They also have the motivation and willpower to push the entire genealogical community towards as common family tree.

It will be interesting to see how that all happens assuming I live long enough to see the results.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Genealogical Data: Private or Public?

One of the constant background issues of genealogy is the issue of public vs. private. For some reason, genealogists think that the information they obtain from "public" sources magically becomes private when the put it into "their family tree." In addition, the news media is constantly admonishing people to "protect their privacy" to avoid the nebulous issue of "identity theft." One example of the extremes being used to "protect your privacy" is the current action to replace every Medicare card in the United States and give everyone a new Medicare Number in order to avoid using the current numbers that are essentially the same as Social Security Numbers.

The basic question is this: how can a number that is issued by the United States Federal Government and is required to be used to obtain a variety of medical services private? Statistics on the number of people using Medicare in the United States vary considerably, one website,, puts the number enrolled in 2015 at 56 million. Meanwhile, your Social Security number will remain the same. Most medical-related entities will likely require both numbers, just like they do now.

This same analysis applies to a whole host of other "numbers" such as drivers' license numbers, telephone numbers, the address on your house or apartment, your car's VIN, your car's license number, and so forth and so forth.

What about family information? If you have ever enrolled in school or received medical care, you have been required to supply a contact person's address and/or phone number. Is this private or public? Do you know who lives next door to you? Have you ever looked at your county or state's real estate tax lists? If you own or are employed in a company, did you pay any taxes? Did you have to supply your Social Security Number to obtain employment or pay your taxes? Perhaps your business has an EIN (Employers Identification Number)? When was the last time you had to supply that number?

Yes, all this a mountain of additional information is public. Additional public information includes your bank account numbers, your club membership numbers, and about everything else you have or work with including your credit card numbers. Why would you think your credit card numbers were private when you give your credit card to a restaurant server for payment of your bill? Oh, you pay by check, do you? Well, your bank's routing number and your account number are printed on every check. Oh, but you are really private, you pay by cash only. Well, while you were standing there paying by cash, a video monitor in the store was recording the transaction.

What is the point? There is very little about our lives that is truly private. As genealogists, we often encounter "restricted" records. But those restrictions are not related to privacy, they are mostly related to entities that have some reason not to disclose the information, including making money from supplying the information.

There are some things that are still private but none of them have anything to do with the information we deal with as genealogists. If you found a birth record for your ancestor, why would you think that no one else could find the same record? Access to everything you research as a genealogist is shared with every other descendant of every one of your ancestors.

Notwithstanding these examples, there are still genealogists who think they own their family tree information. Dead people have no privacy. There are almost no laws protecting access to information about dead people except those, as I noted above, where some entity has a monetary or other reason to restrict access. If I want to obtain my parents' birth records, I will likely have to pay a fee to some state or county agency in the United States. But that does not make the information private and it does not give me ownership of the information.

Do you know which of the numbers I mention in this post should be recorded in a family history and which should not? Maybe that is part of the problem.

If you can go to an archive, a library, a historical society, or some other place in the world or search online and obtain information about your ancestors, so can I. That information is not private.

Let's move from issues of privacy that do not exist to issues of data security which are entirely different and really do have a lot to do with credit cards, bank accounts and other such numbers and institutions. But let's also remember that data security is not privacy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Who Owns Your DNA?

A recent article in the Boston Globe, entitled "Genetic data can track down criminals -- and everyone else," after commenting on the number of DNA tests being conducted by online genealogy companies, contained the following short statement:
This means that we could be entering an era in which it becomes possible to find every rapist, every killer who leaves behind a genetic trace. The technology could usher in the era of mass exonerations. Or it could herald something more sinister — a surveillance state in which your distant relatives’ DNA can testify against you.
If this statement were literally true, then DNA testing would violate the Fifth Amendment. In the case of Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. ___ (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court held as noted and quoted by Wikipedia:
"...when officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, described Maryland's law as follows:
The Act authorizes Maryland law enforcement authorities to collect DNA samples from "an individual who is charged with... a crime of violence or an attempt to commit a crime of violence; or... burglary or an attempt to commit burglary." 
Maryland law defines a crime of violence to include murder, rape, first-degree assault, kidnaping, arson, sexual assault, and a variety of other serious crimes. Once taken, a DNA sample may not be processed or placed in a database before the individual is arraigned (unless the individual consents). It is then that a judicial officer ensures that there is probable cause to detain the arrestee on a qualifying serious offense. 
If "all qualifying criminal charges are determined to be unsupported by probable cause... the DNA sample shall be immediately destroyed." DNA samples are also destroyed if "a criminal action begun against the individual... does not result in a conviction,... the conviction is finally reversed or vacated and no new trial is permitted "or "the individual is granted an unconditional pardon."
 The key unsaid issue here is consent. If the person giving a DNA sample or fingerprints or whatever consents to the disclosure, then the law shifts into a completely different area. Here is a definition of informed consent from the National Institute of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Genetics Home Reference article, "What is informed consent?"
Before a person has a genetic test, it is important that he or she fully understands the testing procedure, the benefits and limitations of the test, and the possible consequences of the test results. The process of educating a person about the test and obtaining permission to carry out testing is called informed consent. "Informed" means that the person has enough information to make an educated decision about testing; "consent" refers to a person's voluntary agreement to have the test done. 
In general, informed consent can only be given by adults who are competent to make medical decisions for themselves. For children and others who are unable to make their own medical decisions (such as people with impaired mental status), informed consent can be given by a parent, guardian, or other person legally responsible for making decisions on that person's behalf. 
Informed consent for genetic testing is generally obtained by a doctor or genetic counselor during an office visit. The healthcare provider will discuss the test and answer any questions. If the person wishes to have the test, he or she will then usually read and sign a consent form.
If you take a genealogical DNA test, you are consenting because you initiated the purchase or obtained the testing kit as a gift or in some other manner and "voluntarily" took the DNA test. In both the medical and criminal justice systems, consent is required to be more formally obtained.

Now, what about the statement quoted above from the Boston Globe? The statement misstates both the circumstances and the use of testimony in a court of law. Yes, there is a substantial difference between DNA testing and fingerprinting. But in one way they are exactly the same. If you have never been fingerprinted, no one can match your prints to those already on file in any database. Likewise, your DNA has to be tested in order to match your DNA to anyone in an existing file. The difference, however, is significant. With DNA tests, you can find people who are your relatives. Fingerprints are just fingerprints. DNA shows relationships.

By the way, that is exactly why genealogists are taking DNA tests; to find relationships. It that is the reason for obtaining a DNA test, then we should not be surprised or alarmed when the test results are used to identify people.

If you are planning on committing a crime, having a DNA test might remind you that you risk discovery and conviction. The fact that a database exists of DNA tests could also be a deterrent. This has nothing to do with privacy. If you give consent for a DNA test that is then incorporated into an online family tree and they are sending you matches, how do you think that your DNA is private?
Think about it.

Looking Back at a Year With Google Photos

For about a year now, I have been using Google Photos to backup all of the photos on my various devices. Because I have been taking a lot of photos with my iPhone 8 Plus, using Google Photos has extremely simplified storing, viewing, and using the photos. The process is simple, you take a photo and Google backs it up online and all of the backed up photos can be viewed using the Google Photos app or online at

The photo storage is free and unlimited. The photos are all organized automatically with a sliding timeline so you can instantly move back to any particular day or year. I have hundreds of thousands of photos on my computer and attached hard drives and all of these are now available to me anyplace and anytime I have an internet connection. However, I would suggest that having this many photos is not easily managed with a program like Google Photos. To really manage these photos, you need a high powered program such as Adobe Lightroom which is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud and has a monthly subscription charge.

For a genealogist, Google Photos simplifies the process of obtaining copies of documents and taking notes assuming the record repository allows photos. When we recently went to the Library of Congress, they suggested taking notes with a smartphone camera. Here is an example of images of a document taken with my iPhone camera and available almost instantly on Google Photos.

Google Photos has a simplified photo editing capability, but any serious editing would require another program. If you are a professional photographer and taking photos at a very high resolution, you need to know that Google reduces the photos to around 16 Megapixels for storage.

There are features for sharing your photos and creating albums. I further suggest reading all the instructions before starting. For more information, you may wish to browse the Official Google Photos blog.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Special Webinar with MyHeritage's Founder and CEO Gilad Japhet
This is a very special webinar from Here is a short synopsis of the broadcast. 
Gilad shared the story of how he originally caught the “genealogy bug” and the journey of starting MyHeritage and recruiting the original team. Filled with personal anecdotes, he included key milestones and lessons learned along the way, including the intriguing story of a 70-year-old mystery, a highlight of his genealogy experiences. 
He also explained the background of the Legacy acquisition and shared new developments coming up for Legacy Family Tree — the company and the webinar series — and future plans for MyHeritage. 
In this webinar, you’ll get the scoop from Gilad first-hand about new feature releases you can expect later this year...
 This a chance to hear from the head of the soon-to-be largest genealogy company in the world.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Surprises at the Washington, DC Family History Center Conference
On the 5th of May, my wife and I presented at the Washington, D.C. Family History Center Conference in Kensington, Maryland. We each taught two classes and I also presented the Keynote. There were about 300 people in attendance and it was a lovely conference. We are very grateful for the opportunity we had to meet and talk to so many wonderful genealogists.

Now the surprises. When I teach at a conference, I regularly ask people how many of them are familiar with or using When I started asking this question the response would be almost no one, maybe two or three people in the back of the room. At this conference, I am estimating that close to 90% of the people indicated they were using the program. This is a major shift in the use of an online genealogy and an indication of the effectiveness of's usefulness as a website. Although once you subscribe to you will get a lot of followup email, they have pretty much avoided saturated media advertising. But I think the response now shows a real interest in the program rather than a response to any advertising effort.

As a group, I found the Conference attendees to be more involved generally in serious genealogical research than when I teach more casual or invited groups of people. The level of questions and discussion that I overheard were more specific and not an indication that the participants were novices or uninformed. This may be a reflection of the area. The attendees also appeared to be as diverse a group of people as I have seen at any conference previously.

One thing that was not surprising and mostly confirms again some of the things I have been writing is that there were virtually no younger people at the Conference. Some of the attendees might have been as old as I am.

Thanks to the organizers and participants for a wonderful one-day conference. They did a great job of organizing and supporting a really nice conference.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Anne Arundel County DNA Bootcamp for Members

The Anne Arundel Genealogical Society has an extensive file of Audio classes for its members. It recently acquired a full recording of the DNA Bootcamp. Here is the announcement.
AAGS members now have access to six DNA Bootcamps, presented by genetic genealogist Mary Eberle and genealogist and blogger Thomas MacEntee, on the following topics:
  • Getting Started with DNA and Genealogy
  • Additional DNA Tools and Concepts
  • Interpreting Your AncestryDNA Results
  • Interpreting Your FTDNA and 23andMe Results
  • Solving Family Mysteries with DNA
  • Finding Birth Families Using DNA
Each Bootcamp includes two webinar recordings and several handouts. The Bootcamps are only accessible to our members who are logged in to our website. Once you have logged in, a new item, "DNA Bootcamps", will appear on the menu to the left. Click on it to access the Bootcamps. If you have any trouble logging in to our site or accessing the Bootcamps, please contact us at We also welcome your feedback on the Bootcamps, and your suggestions for future member benefits.
You can join the AAGS by clicking on this link and have access to these recordings and many others.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Copying Tombstone Inscriptions

Many of the "traditional" ways of preserving the information on tombstones or headstones in a cemetery are destructive and ill-advised. For example, here is a quote from the 2016 New Hampshire Revised Statutes, Title XXVI - CEMETERIES; BURIALS; DEAD BODIES, Chapter 289 - CEMETERIES, Section 289:22 - Stone Rubbings.
289:22 Stone Rubbings. – No person shall make gravestone rubbings in any municipal cemetery or burial ground without first obtaining the written permission of the town selectmen or the mayor of a city or designee. Before granting such permission, the selectmen or mayor will ascertain to the best of their ability that the person making the request knows the proper precautions to be taken and the proper materials to be used for this activity. The town selectmen or city mayor or their designee shall notify the cemetery trustees of the request and its disposition. Any person who violates the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
I ran across this statute in a blog post that did not quote the statute but claimed that making Stone Rubbings was illegal in New Hampshire. Obviously, it is not, but it is regulated. I have also read several references that claim that gravestone rubbings are "illegal" in Massachusetts. I did find the following section in the General Laws, Part IV, Title I, Chapter 272, Section 73:
Section 73. Whoever wilfully destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures or removes a tomb, monument, gravestone, American flag, veteran's grave marker, metal plaque, veteran's commemorative flag holder, commemorative flag holder representing service in a police or fire department, veteran's flag holder that commemorates a particular war, conflict or period of service or flag, or other structure or thing which is placed or designed for a memorial of the dead, or a fence railing, curb or other thing which is intended for the protection or ornament of a structure or thing before mentioned or of an enclosure for the burial of the dead, or wilfully removes, destroys, mutilates, cuts, breaks or injures a tree, shrub or plant placed or being within such enclosure, or wantonly or maliciously disturbs the contents of a tomb or a grave, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or by imprisonment in the jail or house of correction for not more than two and one-half years and by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars. In addition, the court shall order any person convicted of an offense pursuant to this section to pay restitution to the owner of the property that was damaged, destroyed, mutilated, defaced, injured or removed.
I don't see anything in the statute that applies to gravestone rubbings assuming the grave marker was not damaged. Here is a link to an extensive article discussing the pros and cons to gravestone rubbings: "A defense of grave rubbing: fun but controversial." It looks like the writer of the article check some of the same sources I found online.

OK, the image I have above shows a rubbing done with a new technology. The media is Carboff Paper. It seems to be available only from a few sources online, but it is specifically designed for use on stone or other materials without leaving any residue or damaging the surface. However, the physical act of copying a stone inscription can cause damage.

I guess I would suggest that you obtain the permission of the owner or caretaker of any cemetery markers you wish to preserve in this way. I would also suggest that photographs are probably more appropriate. But I cannot find any reference to a statute that makes the activity illegal per se.

If you are aware of the statute please leave a comment and give a full citation to the current state or local law. 

Speaking Up from the Silent Generation

Just recently, I realized that I was a member of the "Silent Generation." This realization caused me a degree of consternation because I am anything but silent. This awareness came about from reading about a study published on May 3, 2018, entitled, "Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life." A summary of the study indicates the following:
More than nine-in-ten Millennials (92%) own smartphones, compared with 85% of Gen Xers (those who turn ages 38 to 53 this year), 67% of Baby Boomers (ages 54 to 72) and 30% of the Silent Generation (ages 73 to 90), according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center data. Similarly, the vast majority of Millennials (85%) say they use social media. For instance, significantly larger shares of Millennials have adopted relatively new platforms such as Instagram (52%) and Snapchat (47%) than older generations have.
These statistics are interesting to silent me because of the demographics of those involved heavily in genealogy. Here is a further comment from the study;
Although Boomers have been enthusiastically adopting a range of technologies in recent years, members of the Silent Generation are less likely to have done so. Three-in-ten Silents (30%) report owning a smartphone, and fewer (25%) indicate that they have a tablet computer or use social media (23%). Previous Pew Research Center surveys have found that the oldest adults face some unique barriers to adopting new technologies – from a lack of confidence in using new technologies, to physical challenges manipulating various devices.
What are those unique barriers? Well, go to a genealogy conference and you can see all of them well exhibited. Here is a quote from the study about the barriers entitled, "Barriers to adoption and attitudes towards technology."
For example, just 26% of internet users ages 65 and over say they feel very confident when using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to do the things they need to do online, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. Roughly one-third describe themselves as only a little (23%) or not at all (11%) confident in their ability to use electronic devices to do necessary online activities.
Genealogy is not a backwater of technology. For many years now, technology has been revolutionizing genealogical research. The disconnect is between the "traditional" methodology that has been engrained in genealogy for more than a hundred years and the realities of online research. As I have written many times before, the times are changing. When an online genealogy company such as now has over 9 billion records online, the idea that we start doing genealogy with a paper pedigree chart and a trip to the local courthouse or archive begs this reality.

The modern model of genealogical research starts with a family tree hosted on a major genealogy program, preferably one with embedded collaboration. I fully realize that as a silent generation member, I have no real standing to opine about technology, despite the fact that I am on a computer from ten to fourteen hours a day. But what I do think is that my present involvement in digitizing thousands of records every week puts me in the position of having my actions consistent with what I am advocating. I am not just talking about the revolution, I am fully involved in it.

Now, the statistics are probably correct. Older people do not embrace technology at the same rate as those who are younger. But despite the fact that almost all the genealogical promotional activities are aimed at youth and younger individuals, I am still finding and seeing only a very small involvement by the other named generations. So the effect is that much of genealogy is still being taught and promoted by and for people who do not use or understand technology.

If you think that you know what is going on, tell me how many court records from the state of Maryland are online in one form or another? My guess is that no one really knows, but that more records are being added every day. Granted there are still geographic areas that have few online records, but those records have never been available even to those who travel and try to gain access.

Right now, for the average person in the United States and much of the English speaking world and most of the Spanish speaking world also, that person can go online today and find as much as four or five generations of their family on some, if not all, of their family lines. There are always exceptions for foundlings, adoptions and etc. but the reality is that the English and Spanish speaking countries (outside of Spain itself) are heavily represented in online collections.

If you want to do genealogy today, get online and start looking. By the way, I will continue not being silent.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

New Pedigree View Mode for MyHeritage Family Trees

For some time now, I have been wondering why MyHeritage did not offer a traditional pedigree view for its family tree. My wait is now over. Here is the announcement from the MyHeritage Blog.
You asked for it, and we developed it for you! This week, we released a Pedigree View mode for family trees, created in response to popular demand from our users. Many users considered the Pedigree View as their most wanted feature on MyHeritage, so we are delighted to fill this need. 
A Pedigree View includes a root person and his/her ancestors. It does not show siblings, spouses, or anyone else who is not a direct ancestor. In this view you can navigate to anyone else in your tree and view their pedigree as well. 
The new Pedigree View doesn’t replace the current view, which we call Family View. It comes in addition, and you can toggle between the two and a third view, which is a List.
Here is a screenshot of the pedigree view using my Grandfather as the beginning person.

Rather than have all the detailed information in the family tree, MyHeritage has a sidebar that provides the details and links to other family members.

From my standpoint as an experienced genealogist, this is a big step forward in making the program more usable. However, if you are used to the family view then that is still available.

There are really three different views available, Family View, Pedigree View, and List. Here is a screenshot of the List.