RootsTech 2014

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Nine

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Nine: Researching Minorities in the United States by Jimmy B. Parker, AG, FUGA.

I had a very brief connection with Jimmy Parker, just before he passed away, in working on Native American entries in the FamilySearch Research Wiki. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists before it became an independent organization. There is a wonderful tribute to him in an obituary in the Deseret News dated 11 September 2011. 

Jimmy makes an interesting point about minorities. He states, quoting from page 85 of the book, 
The concept of "minorities research" is an interesting one. What is it, anyway? What about a person or group sets them apart as a minority? Every individual, family, ethnic group, religion, etc. may qualify as a minority under certain conditions. What constitutes a minority may vary with locality, time period, and attitude. And even if a person or group is considered a minority, how does that affect research? Are the record different for that group? Does the research methodology change because of that minority status?
I would have to answer these questions with a qualifications. For example, recent news shows that in two states of the United States, California and New Mexico, Latinos surpass whites as the largest racial/ethnic group. Here we get to the crux of the matter. What is a Latino? What is a "white?" Aren't these labels self-imposed? Having lived in Latin America for many years, I can hardly go along with a generalization about either the race or ethnicity of "Hispanics." For example, it your family came from Argentina, does that make you a Latino? What if your Argentine family was of German origin and spoke German and Spanish in the home? Does that make you a Latino? In this particular example, aren't we talking about language? If you speak Spanish as your native language, doesn't that make you a Latino in the United States regardless of your ethnic origin? Are the California universities going to start adding English-speaking whites to their minorities studies departments?

From a genealogical standpoint the concept of a "minority" is useless. At one point in time, every single group of immigrants, including the English, were a minority as they came to America. How many Native Americans were there in what we now call Massachusetts when the Pilgrims arrived? Who was the minority? At the same time, there are certain historical facts about the way "minorities" were treated as they arrived in America that governs where and how their important genealogical records were kept. Researching African American populations in the mid-1800s certainly requires some specialized methodologies and background knowledge that is distinctive from researching German immigrants in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of our ancestors is fundamental to genealogical research. In addition, it is important to recognize that as these people moved across political, ethnic, social and other artificially imposed boundaries, the methodology of tracing their history also likely changed.

Where the concept of a minority is generally unhelpful is when the descendants of a minority start to believe that genealogy is "different for their minority." Genealogical research is a broad brush that has techniques and methods that apply to people and are not different simply because someone is labeled a minority. Genealogists learn to appreciate the facts of history that records change depending on political, social, religious and cultural movements and changes, but the process of researching those records is still fundamentally the same. For example, to give an analogy, if I am trying to drive across Los Angeles, I will need to know certain information about freeways and the names of towns. This is considerably different than navigating my way around in rural Pennsylvania. But the process of using maps and navigating is the same. Similarly, if I am researching Hispanic records in California, I use the same genealogical tools as I do when I research records in Pennsylvania. Of course, there are always those "specialists" that have a greater knowledge of their own local records (or streets to continue the analogy) but we are both involved in essentially the same activity.

As Jimmy Parker points out, the key to all of this is knowing the history and background of your ancestors. I am sometimes appalled and even amazed at the lack of awareness of researchers. They dive right into looking for an ancestor without knowing anything about the area where they are researching. I find that many times they do not even know which state they are researching or if the state or county even existed at the time their ancestor lived. My point is that genealogy is not so much a search for names and dates as it is a search for records. Every one of our ancestors came from a different place and we need to know if there are records for the time and place before we start searching for names.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

Gambling vs. Genealogy

In Nevada alone, gambling is an over $8 billion dollar a year revenue generator. See State of Nevada, Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board, Quarterly Report for the Quarter ended March, 2014.  Not surprisingly, statistics on gamblers and gambling (euphemistically called the gaming industry) are rather difficult to find. A report in the United Kingdom estimates that 1% of the total population are problem gamblers. Those over 65 are the fastest growing group of problem gamblers. In a recent Deseret News article by Michael De Groote, entitled "Gray gambling: How gaming impacts seniors" it states,
According to a 2013 report by the American Gaming Association, one-third of Americans (34 percent) visited a casino in the past 12 months. Twenty-eight percent of people aged 65 and older visited a casino in the past 12 months. An article in Psychology Today, however, puts the percentage much higher: David Oslin at the University of Pennsylvania claims that 70 percent of people 65 years and older "had gambled in the previous year and that one in 11 had bet more than he or she could comfortably afford to lose.
What has this got to do with genealogy? Genealogy is looked upon as a "leisure time" activity and primarily an activity of the retired and elderly. If the segment of our society most interested in genealogy is also that same segment that is rapidly becoming more involved in gambling there should be some concern. From my perspective, anytime a huge part of our population are spending their resources in a non-productive way, we have cause for concern. Of course, I cannot reasonably expect people to stop going to casinos and start doing genealogy, but perhaps we should be aware of the impact of gambling and the associated activities on the potential for expansion of the genealogical community. This problem is not confined to the elderly. The U.S. National Institute of Health issued a report in 2009 finding the following:
Problem gambling and substance misuse are prevalent among young people. For instance, 17% of youth reported gambling 52 or more times in the past year, and the same percentage of youth drank five or more drinks on 12 or more days in the past year. Ten percent of youth reported having three or more gambling problems in the past year, and 15% of young people reported having three or more alcohol problems. Controlling for gender, age, and socioeconomic status, black youth have a significantly increased probability of frequent gambling compared with other racial/ethnic groups, yet they have a significantly decreased probability of heavy drinking. Alcohol problems and gambling problems show high co-occurrence, especially for male youth and black youth.
I am not so callous as to be wringing my hands because potential genealogists are ruining their lives, these children are our families. What are the chances that someone with an addiction problem (other than being addicted to genealogy) will become actively engaged in genealogical research? In a report from a BYU Professor, Dr. Lane Fischer, Ph.D. entitled, Exploring Genealogical Roots and Family History and their Influence on College Student Identity Development: A Qualitative Study, points out that experience with genealogy can help younger participants form a positive identity. I would suggest that this is the same for everyone. Working to identify your ancestors is more that pastime. It can have a significantly positive impact on your self image and self value.

Any negative activity, such as gambling, is counter to the positive influence of genealogy. We each make a decision as to how we allocate our time and money. If we choose to spend both in non-productive ways, we diminish our capacity to spend that same time in more productive ways. The spread of activities such as casino gambling are destructive, not just of our society as a whole, but also of our particular interest in preserving our family traditions and history.

Update on the Cultural Heritage of Novi Sad

I mentioned this Serbian cultural website in a post entitled, "New Cultural Heritage Website in Novi Sad, Serbia" earlier this year. Now the website is available in English. Here is a screenshot of the home page:

As I noted previously,
This new website is a a gorgeous new digital heritage platform using the Digital Public Library of America’s open source technology. The platform, Digital Heritage of Novi Sad (, provides access to digitized cultural and historical materials from approximately 200 institutions in or around Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, all searchable by place, time, and subject. According to project leaders, they are in the final phase of equipping a modern digital laboratory with scanners and graphics processing workstations for digitizing new material into the platform.
For genealogists, the development of this type of website in an area where records have very limited availability is like opening a new door to history. Here is screenshot of the present exhibitions to give you a flavor of the type of information that is becoming available:

In the United States, there is USA Serbs Community Network, a website with links to resources and Serbian organizations across the country.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Family Stories -- Helpful or Misleading?

It seems like the old, traditional genealogy myths keep turing up in different forms, time after time, as I talk to people about their genealogy. Proving or disproving a traditional family story can be complicated. This is true not only from the historical perspective but also because disproving the story can lead to bad feelings and in some cases, extreme antagonism. Unfortunately, I am speaking from personal experience. In some cases, even the accumulation of a mountain of facts, cannot dissuade a believer from repeating the story online or disseminating the falsely identified photograph. I have written about this issue before, but like everything else in genealogy, it keeps being thrown in my face from time to time.

I am presently investigating a complicated family story for a friend. I have already found facts that seem to contradict parts of the story, but so far, the core story resists either proof or disproof. In this case, the core story has one of the classic elements of genealogical myth, the three brothers story. However, the facts here have two brothers and a sister. It also involves orphans, name changes and other classic elements of a good family story.

The classic genealogy myth collection usually involves a vaguely identified ancestor who is distinctive in some way but substantiation is missing and of course, there are no sources that can be verified. Here are a few of the traditional themes:

  • The Three Brothers Myth -- Three brothers come to America from somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, one goes north and makes his fortune, one goes south and one goes west and is never heard of again. The variations on this story are rampant, but it usually revolves around the number three. 
  • The Indian Princess Myth -- This is one myth that can sometimes be proved or disproved. I have had some notable experiences helping people prove their connection to Native American ancestors, but never an Indian Princess. I am not sure that there is any documented evidence of the existence of Indian Princesses. I suspect that this story is related to the true history of Pocahontas, who ended up married to an Englishman, John Rolfe.
  • The Name Change -- It is undoubtedly true that many immigrants to the U.S. or North America or elsewhere, changed their names for a variety of reasons. But I hear the story that the ancestor's name was changed by the government or whatever over and over. The U.S. Government did not have the policy of changing names at Ellis Island or elsewhere. I am aware that Native American children who were forcibly enrolled in Boarding Schools had their Indian names changed to Anglicized names. But virtually all of the name changes originated with the immigrant. In my own family's history, the name change occurred before the immigrant left Europe. 
  • Relationship to a famous person -- These types of claims are usually the easiest to dispel. For some reason, people seem to feel more important if they are related to someone important. I have mentioned before a story in my own family, based solely on the same surname, that I was related to Daniel Boone. That story took me all of about an hour to disprove. Despite the ease of disproof, these can be amazing persistent stories.
  • Back to Adam -- No not again. Is it really time to mention this horrible example of lack of historicity again? Oh well, if you believe your pedigree goes back to Adam, there is not a whole lot I can do to help you. 
  • The Ethnic Myth -- This is another myth that is very persistent and sometimes hard to prove or disprove. Most commonly, the myth claims that the family came from some particular place. Since everyone came from somewhere, this is a difficult issue to confront. Most of the time, this myth originates in a lack of accurate information about the location of the family's origin as it existed historically. Usually, this myth takes the form of claiming that the family came from "Germany" at time when Germany did not exist as a country or some other variation on this theme. 
  • My Family has a Coat of Arms or Crest -- This myth is just plain silly. Proving entitlement to a Coat of Arms or Crest is very involved and requires strict documentation. If it makes you feel important to have a Coat of Arms, I suggest you read up on the subject before making any public claims. 
  • The Burned Courthouse -- Well, courthouses, like other buildings, do burn, but the conclusion that there are no family records available subsequent to the burn is more of an excuse than a consequence. The existence of a burned courthouse is an open invitation to do real genealogical research. 
  • Descent from an Identified Group -- In the U.S. this is usually the Mayflower passengers, an ancestor who fought in some war or another type of organization that requires so degree of genealogical proof for admittance. I usually see this when the researcher is certain there is a connection but has one or more missing links that need to be verified. 
Until you have personally confronted a myth that you have disproven and seen the reaction of your family members to this situation, you have no idea how unpopular you can be. There are other myths that have to do with the way genealogy works or whether or not all of genealogy can be done online and such, but these are not really family stories. I suggest that family stories can be a marvelous motivation for people to get involved in genealogy, but they can also short circuit the whole process and prove to be a boat anchor for accurate research. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Cheap Will Family Tree has created an interesting privacy mode. Any information you enter into the program about living people is visible only to you. Any personal information you put into the program is supposed to be visible only to you and no one else. Once exception to this policy has been made for photos. All photos are available to be viewed, by anyone accessing the program. But what about documents? FamilySearch is currently urging living people to document their own lives. Here is the current policy statement from the FamilySearch Help Center:
Records of living people will be visible to you if you entered them, but they will be hidden from everyone else, including the individuals themselves. This answers the frequent question, "Why can't my spouse see records for her living cousins that I can see?" The answer is that you entered those records and she did not. The fact that different people see different things can seem confusing at first, but it is necessary to protect the privacy of living people. 
You cannot do a search to find a living individual using his or her name, even if you contributed the information. However, if you contributed a living individual, you can do a search by ID number to find him or her, by clicking Find and clicking ID Number.
There are slightly different policies for photos, documents and stories from the Help Center:
Photos, Documents, or Stories for living persons that you have added to your tree:
  • You can add photos, documents, or stories for a living person to Family Tree. However, before doing so, you should be aware of local privacy laws and, when necessary, obtain permission from those persons to post the information. Go to his or her Person page, and click Photos and Documents to add a photo or document from there, or click Stories to add a story. (The photos, documents, and stories connected to that person are those that are numbered on his or her summary card or shown on Photos and Documents or Stories on his or her Person page in Family Tree.) As long as you have the rights to see that living person in Family Tree, you will also see the photos, documents, and stories linked to that person.
  • NOTE: If you upload and tag a photo, document, or story for a person, when you click on his or her name to link the tag to the tree, you cannot use the Search option on the pop-up window, Identify this person in Family Tree, to link a living person. Search filters out living persons. Type or paste the ID number into theID number field, and click Link.
  • If the photo, document, or story of your living person is one you added, only you will see the items linked to the person. This is true for your ancestors, spouse, or children.
  • If someone else adds a photo, document, or story to a living person whom he or she has added to his or her tree, even if it is your ancestor or relative, you will not see that living person or his or her photo, etc.
OK, so let me give a hypothetical situation. What happens to my invisible documents when I die? Supposing I put a personal document online, it appears that when I die and a death date is entered into the system, then the documents become public. So, what if I decide to make a will and put the document on Family Tree? Then the will would become "visible" at my death and could be used for probate purposes.

Hmm. I can hear the screams of complaint already. A will is a formal, legal document and has been for thousands of years. But the formalities of making a will have changed and differ from state to state and country to country. There are legal types of wills that fall into the noncupative and holographic categories. Both these types of wills, oral or nuncupative and holographic, are recognized to some extent in almost all (if not all) U.S. states. Given the change in technology, isn't it inevitable that the validity of an online will is something that will be decided at some point? Writing a will online is hardly a new issue. See "How to Write a Will Online" from U.S. News and World Report. 

I am certainly not challenging the methods of validating wills, I am merely pointing out that here is a cheap and easy way to deliver a copy of the valid will to heirs. Create an online will and put a copy of the will into Family Tree and when you die, your heirs can retrieve the copy of the will from Family Tree. Of course, all the same issues remain about validity, will contest, etc. but putting a will online is really no different that having a copy of a will when the original cannot be found. 

I doubt FamilySearch has thought through the consequences of using Family Tree as a post-death delivery system, but that is an interesting sidelight development created by the way the program is designed to work. 

What are public records?

An issue was raised in a recent discussion on concerning the availability of birth and death records from the New York City Department of Health. The issue appears in a discussion email from Allan Jordan who inquired about obtaining a birth certificate from 1910 or newer and that quotes the New York City Department of Health reply as stating:
We do not follow that state law. NYC is a closed jurisdiction and we are not public records. For birth and death certificates you must show entitlement. There aren't an amount of years when our records become public yet.
This raises an interesting question for genealogists as to what is and what is not a "public record." It also raises an issue of when governments can declare records to be only available by entitlement when the governmental agency defines entitlement. These issues and others will be part of the discussion of the upcoming International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah from July 27th to August 1st, 2014.

At the beginning of this discussion, it is important to note that this type of attitude and provisions such as these limiting access to certain types of records are general throughout the United States. The time limits and requirements for access vary from state to state as do the charges for obtaining the records. It would be easy to explain this situation as merely a way to enhance revenues, but it is a lot more complicated than that.

Many beginning genealogists assume they have an absolute right to see whatever records they want to research about their "family." They are surprised and sometimes angry when they find out that obtaining so-called "public records" is not as easy as it appears from the word public. Public does not mean free, neither does it mean that anyone has access to the records. So, there are two separate issues; access and fees.

Fees have been charged to obtain copies of records for as long as anyone could figure out that it could be done. As an attorney, I was used to paying all sorts of fees for filing documents, obtaining copies of documents and sometimes merely looking at documents. There are two levels of copies of documents that have emerged; official or certified copies and unofficial copies. For example, here in Utah a Certified Copy of a Birth Certificate has the following charges:
$52.87 Online Processing Fee
$10.95 Authorized Utah Agency Merchant Fee
$35.00 Utah State Government Fee
$98.82 Total Fee (Additional Copies: $60.87 each) 
Delivery Options
$19.00 *UPS Air Shipping Delivery (includes multiple copies)
$16.50 *UPS 2 Day Air Shipping
Free Regular Mail
Mind you, this is for a piece of paper with an official stamp. Also, beware, there are a huge number of companies out there who will obtain a copy of a birth certificate or other document and tack on their own fees in addition to the cost from the state.

Utah is not likely the state with the highest charges but it is certainly up there among the highest. As another example, Florida has a very complicated process, but charges as follows:
(Type of birth certificate and routine processing times)
  1. Computer certification $9.00 | Processed within 1 to 3 days
  2. Photocopy certification $14.00 |For births prior to 2004 processed within 3 to 5 days
  3. Commemorative Certification $34.00 -Signed by the current Governor and certified by the State Registrar. | Processed within 4 to 6 weeks. Refer to section addressing commemorative certificates.
  4. Rush Services- If faster service is desired, you have the option to include an additional fee of $10.00 to expedite the processing time to 1 to 2 business days.
 For most genealogical research issues, unofficial copies of the birth certificates will suffice.

Fees are a fact of life, but what about access? Well, it turns out that every state in the U.S. has some kind of restriction on access to both death and birth records. Florida's requirements for access are indicative of the general types of access requirements:
ELIGIBILITY: Birth certificates can be issued only to:
1. Registrant (the child named on the record) if of legal age (18)
2. Parent(s) listed on the Birth Record
3. Legal Guardian (must provide guardianship papers)
4. Legal representative of one of the above persons
5. Other person(s) by court order (must provide recorded or certified copy of court order)
In the case of a deceased registrant, upon receipt of the death certificate of the decedent, a certification of the birth certificate can be issued to the
spouse, child, grandchild, sibling, if of legal age, or to the legal representative of any of these persons as well as to the parent.
Any person of legal age may be issued a certified copy of a birth record (except for those birth records under seal) for a birth event that occurred
over 100 years ago. 
What should be evident from these examples is that there are definitely different categories of documents generated by state and local agencies. Perhaps you can begin to appreciate what it takes to provide millions of online documents for free or a nominal subscription price.

Although I fully sympathize with the concerns implied by the discussion at the IAJGS Conference, I don't see this system changing any time in the near or distant future. The reasons given by the states and other jurisdictions for withholding or charging for access to certain records include privacy issues and other excuses, some of which are bogus. The charges are essentially a use tax and we are not likely to abolish taxes anytime soon. Access is restricted otherwise there would be no way to justify the tax.

I could discuss the issue of privacy, as I have in the past, but in this context, there is really nothing to discuss. Most, if not all, these restrictions have been in place long before anyone heard of identity theft as an issue. If you can answer this question, you can explain this whole issue. Why does it presently cost $319.00 to file a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County, Arizona?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Eight

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter Eight: Casting the Net Wider: Searching Horizontal Kin and Neighbors by Amy Harris, Ph.D., AG.

This is one of my most repeated themes; expanding your genealogical research to include the surrounding relatives, friends and community. This particular chapter is very direct and primarily contains examples of the way to extend your research focus beyond the individual to the family. I recently used this principle to find the parents of a friend's Great-grandfather.

Every person who ever lived, created a cloud of records and associations. The idea here is to use the entire cloud and stop focusing only on the target individual. In my mind this type of research creates a pattern. For example, suppose you have a family that lived in the United States in the mid-1800s. Let's further suppose that they lived in a small town. By 1900, the majority of the residents in the United States still lived in rural areas. Quoting from the Library of Congress:
The United States began as a largely rural nation, with most people living on farms or in small towns and villages. While the rural population continued to grow in the late 1800s, the urban population was growing much more rapidly. Still, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas in 1900.
 I could go on to give statistics that would demonstrate the percentages of the population living on farms in any given area, but this generalization is sufficient for this example. Key to proceeding with any genealogical research is the need to establish a geographical base. You must begin your research and continue it by identifying a location specifically associated with a particular event in an identified person's life. This principle seems lost on many researchers. If you carefully examine the case studies given in the book, you will see that Amy uses this principle to expand her investigations beyond searching again and again for the same individual by name, date and place. She uses the place to add relatives and other people who lived in the same area at the same time. She states the principle by saying, "The records about one ancestor never contain all the clues pertaining to previous generations."

Amy also alludes to kinship patterns as a way of extending the ancestral family. I have written several times about the need to understand and investigate the kinship structure in existence at the time and place under investigation. In my own family, both my wife and I have an extensive kinship structure, but there is a dramatic difference in the way we interact with that structure. Except for my children and grandchildren, we have very limited interaction with my family for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, there are members of my wife's family that are very closely associated with us an come to many of our nuclear family events as part of the "family." These types of situations are common. Although I refer to the anthropological concept of a "kinship system," that system is implicit in these family associations, not associations in the sense of formal organizations, but merely in the sense of who you talk to and associate with on a regular basis.

These associations or relationships can be used to extend genealogical research. But the key here is that they must be identified and understood. The research effort to discover the family should extend equally to all members of the family. Returning to the idea that every family presents a unique pattern, you will find that you can use these family patterns to help to differentiate the family from others with similar patterns. For example, my Great-grandmother had the following children, looking only at their first or given names:

  • Martin
  • Thomas
  • Julia
  • Mary
  • Rollin
  • Hazel
  • Marion
  • Eva
  • Arthur

Granted, there were quite a number of children and I have not listed them all. But the point is that I can use this pattern to discover information about the family. I can also research each of the children to find additional information. If I use this pattern to do a Google search and include a place, such as adding the word "Arizona", I get the following results:

Google recognizes the pattern and produces a page where all the names appear. Now, it you take this simple example an expand it beyond a Google search to the entire concept of genealogical searching, you will begin to see patterns everywhere. These patterns are what you can use to identify families and extend family lines.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series: