RootsTech 2014

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Matter of Place

I receive some really interesting and thought provoking comments. Occasionally, any response would be too long for a comment. This was one of those comments.
Perhaps people use the today's names of cities or towns is because genealogy source information is often filed under the current names of the towns. I am doing a review of which Shackfords were where in the 1790 census and every single source document seems to index people as being in the state of Maine even though Maine was not a separate state until 1820. If I want to do further research for these individuals in this time frame, I need to look under Maine for wills, probate records, and town documents even though these individuals were living in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Also, if I want to use the tools in my database where I keep track of the individuals to plot the location of where they lived, I need to use today's location. Just because people use today's locations for birth or residence doesn't mean they don't know that the location was different back then - it may mean that they want to maximize their opportunity to find more source data about the individuals they are researching.
The context of the comment was a reference I made to the need to cite the place name of the place at the time the event occurred. I think it is likely correct that genealogy information is "filed" under the name of the place as it exists today. From my view point, I would consider this practice to be based on a lack of perspective as to the need to preserve the historical designations of the places. Why do we preserve the historical designations? The reason is slightly complicated. Let me explain the reasoning by posing a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose that you are researching in a place such as Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. In 1776, The area we now call the State of Pennsylvania was not well defined and had only 12 counties. Here is a screenshot of the county boundaries, in black, with the present-day outline of the state and modern counties in white from the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.

You can immediately see that if an event occurred in Northumberland or Westmoreland counties, without a more specific locations, finding the records in today's record repositories would be a real challenge. Over the years as new counties were formed, four things could have happened to the records:

  • The records could have stayed in the previously existing county or counties
  • The records could have moved to the new county
  • The records could have been sent elsewhere, i.e. to the state, a historical society, a museum, a university etc.
  • The records could have been destroyed

So where do you start to look? It is also entirely possible that the existence of the records, if they still exist, is entirely unknown to the present-day custodians of those records. This may seem a little retro, but I am talking here about the actual physical records, not their digital analogs. Now let's suppose that the records have now ended up in the State Archives and are digitized by a large online genealogy database. How do think that the records will be classified? Will you look under Pennsylvania generally or in the specific county existing today or in the area covered by the historical county? Any guess at answering this question would be pure speculation.

So why do we need to record the original location? Shouldn't we just stick in the name of the current county and state (or country or whatever) and forget the whole problem? Now the answer gets really complicated. The suggestion made above is one way to approach the problem. That is, record the names of both the original location and the name of the present jurisdictional location. In practice, finding the records is one of the major objectives and goals of genealogical research. Most genealogists think they are looking for names when they should really be looking for records before they even begin to look for names and before they look for records, they should locate events in their ancestors' lives.

Too many times, inexperienced researchers conclude that they have searched everywhere for their ancestors when, in fact, they have searched in all the wrong places. Looking at the map above, which could be Eastern Europe or anywhere else in the world, where did the record from Westmoreland County created in 1776 end up? Answer that question after you have definitely located the exact spot of an event in your ancestor's life and you can begin the process of searching for records. Generally searching Pennsylvania records or Westmoreland County records might be helpful, but not focused and not very effective. Searching only the records online is like wearing a blindfold and searching for a pin on the floor. You might find it but it might take a very long time or never.

So where are the records located? Everywhere and nowhere. This is what genealogy is all about: finding records. That is why I spend so much time finding out about new places to look.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Private Spaces announced for FamilySearch Family Tree

If you have been on Family Tree program in the last few days, you probably noticed a banner such as this one:

I had heard something about this change, but was waiting to see what the details would be. Apparently, Ron Tanner, product manager for the Family Tree program, gave some of the details that were quoted in a blog post by The Ancestry Insider entitled "Ron Tanner Announces Private Spaces at #BYUFHGC." During this conference, I was in Salt Lake City attending the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies Conference.

I do not wish to simply repeat what the Ancestry Insider had to say, so I will refer you to his rather extensive explanation. But I will quote from the Family Tree Help menu on "Understanding Private Spaces"
Issues Addressed
  • What is Private Spaces?
  • Will living people I add to Family Tree automatically become deceased?
  • Why do I see different PIDs on each family member's account?
  • Does editing living members in Family Tree update LDS Church Membership Records?
  • Are living duplicates automatically going to be merged when a person dies?
  • Each user of Family Tree has a private space. Private spaces help manage data privacy and confidentiality for each user.
  • All living people and their relationships are stored in a private space.
  • Currently, private spaces cannot be shared.
  • Each owner of a copy can modify it independently from others.
  • Deceased persons should each be represented only one time in Family Tree and have a common PID.
  • But a living person can be represented in multiple private spaces as a different Family Tree person, and that person will have a different Person Identifier number (PID) in each private space.
  • Searching Family Tree using a living person's name will not find him or her. Searching by the PID will not find him or her in any other account besides the one that uses the number you are searching for.
  • Living people cannot be sourced.
  • Family Tree does not compute living people, even after they are older than 110 years. Users will need to mark their copy of the individuals as deceased and then search for any possible duplicates.
You may also want to refer to the explanation in "How Family Tree displays living people" and "Visibility of living people on Family Tree."

This is certainly going to raise a lot of questions. 

Explanation to FamilySearch's Access to Records

Here is one of the best, concise explanations I have heard concerning the way records are accessed on's Historical Record Collections.

From time to time, I get questions about accessing records on the large online genealogy sites. This short video explains how and why there are limitations on access. This applies, not only to FamilySearch, but to many other websites. Please take time to view the video and share it where appropriate.

Comments on Finding the 'Core Truth' in a Tradition

A very short blog post on the Quick Tips, The Blog@Evidence Explained, entitled "Finding the 'Core Truth' in a Tradition," started me thinking. The idea behind the list of the "six-step" plan outlined in the blog post is to verify with "first-hand" sources the details of family stories to determine their truth or falsity. The claim is that the six-steps "work every time." I think the whole process of unraveling family traditions and stories cannot be neatly packaged into a six or any other number process. I can use the framework of a very well known traditional family story to illustrate how I think the actual process differs from the never fail solution.

To explain this I will have to use a hypothetical example rather than the actual story for a variety of reasons that will become clear by the end of this post. In this hypothetical family story a fairly distant relative has some extraordinary experiences. Let's further suppose that the only "evidence" of the story comes primarily from the ancestor himself and there are no other known witnesses to some the extraordinary events in the story who made a record of the events. It is not that the story did not involve a number of people, but apparently none of them recorded the events that transpired. As you, the researcher, trace the story back, you find the first and only written record of the "story" comes from the ancestor's grandson, who recorded the story after the story teller was dead. In fact, the two individuals' lives only overlap a few years. The story teller died when his grandfather was 5 years old. Further, the person who recorded the story, did not write down the details until many, many years after the story teller's death, when the recorder was an old man himself. The main events of the story occurred when the father of the recorder of the story was also quite young, in fact, a teenager.

Now, let's see what happens when you apply the six-steps outlined in the above cited blog post. First, you look to the story itself for clues as to the truth or falsity of the events set forth. You carefully read and re-read the story as reported and determine that there are several clues that might verify the time and place of the story. By following step two, you examine presently available historical documents to determine if there is any independent corroboration of the original story. But remember, the only account of the story, as it is repeated in the family, is rather easily traced to a person who had only a very brief acquaintanceship with the story teller and wrote the story when he was an old man. In addition, in your examination of the story, as it was written, you notice several seriously important differences between the way the story was originally recorded and the way the story is told in the family.

You do more research and find that the people who are mentioned in the story actually existed and that they were present at some of the times and places mentioned in the original copy of the story. But unfortunately (remember, this is my hypothetical) none of them left a written account of the events related by the original ancestor, presumably, the story teller and this seems strange since the events as so unusual and striking as to be very memorable. In fact, after a reasonably exhaustive search, none of the events outlined in story tellers story appear anyplace except in the written account dozens of years after the events. It is also strange, that many of the important or even crucial elements of the story are entirely unverified in any other writing and even though the main characters existed, it is hard to place any of them together in the ways the story is related.

After following step four of the blog post, you start to strip away any repetitious parts of the story and keep returning to the written account. It is clear that many of the events passed down by the family have no support in the only written record. But, on the other hand, there is no way to disprove the assertions of the recorder of the story. After following step five and weeding out the "hearsay" you are forced to reject the entire story, because the written record is, in fact, hearsay. It is a record of a story told by someone else to a person who was not alive at the time the events occurred and who recorded those alleged events years after the story was related to him. There appears to be no earlier written record at all. So do we find the "core truth?" What we do find is well worn and copiously document history that makes no direct or indirect mention of the key elements of the traditional story.

So do we reject the story outright? Is it an embellishment of facts that are generally well known and easily substantiated. Why would the reporter be lying? Or was he? Perhaps, he was actually relating a story that occurred but reported some facts that went beyond the original story. We presently have no way to cross-examine the reporter of the story. We do not know his source in order to evaluate that sources reliability. The added facts will continue to be related by the family members as the "truth" even with the added facts that were not contained in the original written story, which very, very few of the family members have ever read or would even know how to find.

Do you want to be the spoiler? Are you willing to go out with your inconclusive evidence and debunk the story? Are you going to become the family police and try and stop the re-telling of the story? What if someone makes a move based on the story and the movie moves even further from the original writing and starts a whole new round of embellishments?

At this point, I do not think that the claim "it works. Every time" rings true. What works? In effect, after your investigation, you know nothing more than you did when you started the whole process. You cannot either prove or disprove the story as written and you cannot find any support for the persistent embellishments which have now taken on the patina of truth. If you reject the story, you are a spoiler. If you accept the story as told, you are intellectually dishonest. If you insist on referring to the written version of the story as the only "true" account, you are still intellectually dishonest. The story's elements cannot be either proven or disproven. But as a tradition it is unassailable. What is the core truth?

With today's added emphasis on stories as passed down through families, it is important to distinguish between "stories" and documented history. Sometimes the documented history is more remarkable than the stories passed down as tradition. Sometimes it is the other way around. The popular view of stories is that they add life and substance to the dry old history. That may be true, but what happens to the people who discover that the stories have no foundation? Many efforts in the world of historical research have been conducted for the purpose of proving or disproving a traditional story. Frequently, the historical research discovers that the "facts" are just different. The events were just as remarkable as the story, but the tradition has no support. It is not hard to find such stories. All we have to do here in the United States is go to traditional stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and many, many others. Other countries are also not immune. Some of my own ancestors came from Australia and a popular story there is "The Man from Snowy River" that was the subject of a popular movie of the same name. See Wikipedia: The Man from Snowy River (poem). In this case, the story, which is an entirely fictitious poem, has become the "reality." Do we reject the poem because there is no reality? Does the poem still have the power to inspire people to have an interest in their history? What about my hypothetical story above? Do we have a place in genealogy for the story apart from the unproven historical reality?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jewish Control Registers in Bohemia and Moravia

Thanks to a Facebook post by Schelly Talalay Dardashti via Marlene Bishow, I learned of a very valuable addition to the online world of genealogically valuable documents. These particular documents are found in the Czech Archives. But first a website that will give you some explanations of the Regional Archives. This information is on a website called the Czech Census Searchers. I would also refer you to the FamilySearch Research Wiki article on Czech Republic Online Genealogy Records. There is also a website for the Czech National Archives where the notice regarding the Jewish Control Registers is posted. The notice states:
Digitalization of the Registers of Jewish Religion Communities 
In 2011, all volumes of the Registers of Births, Marriages, and deaths of Jewish communities deposited in the National Archives were digitalized. In the course of this year they will be gradually made accessible on: First of all there will be volumes from the fond „ Matriky židovských náboženských obcí v českých zemích“ (HBMa)(Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands) for the publication of which the original inventory was used after some improvements.

The registers, needing substantial preservation and restoration interference, were exempt from the process of digitalization and will be scanned later. Similarly, there will be published, with delay, those volumes of the registers where errors found during checking of snaps are then corrected. 
In accordance with the Register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths Act (N.301/2000 Coll.) only entries older than 100 years from the last entry in the Births Registers and 75 years from the last entry in the Marriages and Deaths Registers will be made accessible in the individual volumes of the HBMa fond. The restriction does not apply to the Jewish control registers owing to the time range of entries.  
On finding individual localities, the user may use a geographical index depicting all places stated in the registers, such as place of birth, of marriage or of death with reference to the inventory number in the register in question.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 -- search all of the world's digital newspapers at one time makes the claim to search all of the world's digital newspapers at one time. This may be an overstatement, but it does have a search engine that will search 141,628,238 items from 2,677 newspaper titles. Its collections are decidedly slanted to newspapers from Australia and New Zealand but it does have papers from places as diverse as Singapore and Mexico. Part of the huge collection comes from a link to the National Library of Australia's website Another part is linked to the Library of Congress's Chronicling America website.

Here is a screenshot of the top of the current titles page:

As with any large online database, if you find your ancestors you think it is great. If you don't find your ancestors, you don't think it is worth much. But like everything in genealogy; the game is in the search.


My friend, Sharon D. Monson, has debuted her GenSearchandmore website. This is a subscription website anchored by Sharon's books, Beginner Tech Guide and Shortcut to Genealogy Sources. Sharon and her husband, Brad, are well known presenters at conferences around the country. She also has a U.S. Genealogical Research Service.