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

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dates, Dates and More Dates -- Understanding History

From time to time, I have written about the sad state of history education in the United States and its impact on genealogists understanding of their ancestors. I thought I might discuss some dates that are particularly important to genealogical research. I might also throw in some observations on the type of errors I commonly encounter because researchers do not correlate the historical dates with what they are putting into online family trees. Surprisingly, there aren't that many crucial dates, but they are so often ignored that, for me, looking at the family trees online is like living in a pesky swarm of mosquitos.

Here are the dates in a roughly chronological order with a discussion of the importance of the date and what kinds of problems I usually encounter.

6:00 pm, Saturday, October 23, 4004 BC

This is the date calculated by Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th Century. If you would like to see how he calculated this date, you can read an extensive analysis the Date of creation. I am more than aware of the various controversies that surround this date and the religious fervor the various positions engender, but genealogists really shouldn't be worried about extending their pedigrees "back to Adam." There is no benefit that accrues from spending the time copying one or more of the unsupported genealogies into your own records whether you believe the date and the religious justification for the date or not. If you want to see my summary of the issue then you can view my video entitled, "Why You Can't Trace Your Lineage Back to Adam."

1500 AD

Following up on the "Back to Adam" issue is the significant date of 1500 AD. This date is a rough approximation of the earliest time during which records of ordinary people would have been kept in Europe. There are a very, very few records that go back further, but most of the records that have genealogical significance are not available before this date. Whenever, I make this statement, I always have some that argue that "they have found more information about their family that goes back even further than this date." With a few notable exceptions, these people are merely copying from books published long after this date giving various pedigrees for kings and other prominent historical figures. Almost uniformly, these "older pedigrees" are based on undocumented and unsupported extensions.

There are some "proven" pedigrees that purport to extend the royal ancestry of immigrants to America, for example, but so what? When you begin copying, you are no longer doing genealogical research. If it makes you feel important or whatever to connect to European royalty, then go for it. But don't think you are impressing me or anyone who knows anything about these pedigrees.

I admire those who have the historical background, language skills and dedication to do Medieval research, but I have only met a small handful of these people in my entire life and they are certainly not the folks putting their family trees online. Note, there are a number of places in the world, such as China, where family records and pedigrees go back much further than 1500 AD. I might also mention that there are a few older parish records from Spain, but for most of Europe, this is about the limit.

1538 AD

This is the date that is commonly accepted as the beginning of the keeping of English parish records. If you have any questions at all about this date and want to show me how you got a baptismal record for you ancestor before this date, I would be glad to review it. Here is a book to get you started with your investigations in this area. If you don't know this history, you have no business adding content to online family trees. Keep your poor research and speculations to yourself.

Cox, Charles. The Parish Registers of England, by J. Charles Cox,... London: Methuen, 1910.

You can read a very nice, digitized copy of this book on the website at There are extensive references concerning the earliest records that have been located for each of the English parishes. Meanwhile, as soon as fixes the Family Tree and disconnects it from, I will be editing out all of the unsupported dates in all of my family lines. 

1492 or 1620 AD

This is the date of the arrival of the Mayflower in America. Although some European settlements, especially those initiated by Spain, go back to the original time of Columbus. Arguments about earlier European settlements in America have an academic interest but not for genealogists. 

1620 to 1847 AD

This is the range of dates when the first European settlers entered the area now segmented into the states of the United States of America. Every state and every county in the United States has a date when the first European (or whatever) settlers first entered that portion of the country. Usually referred to as the date of earliest settlement, these dates are commonly ignored by people who locate their ancestors in parts of the country that were not settled at that time. I ran across a reference to one of my ancestors who was supposed to have been born in Utah in the 1700s. This is a really common error. There are lists of the time of formation of every state and every county, try the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for a start. 

Obviously this issue blends into the date calculations that seem to show children born before their parents and after their parents died. But I see all of this as a symptom of the same problem; a total lack of awareness of history and dates. Before any of us can take seriously much of what passes as genealogical research, we will have to clean up the mess caused by this gross ignorance of history. 

I could go on with dates such as the dates for the U.S. Civil war, and many others but I think this list gives an idea of the process we should all be aware of when we start putting our research online. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Genealogy, iPads and the Future of Computers

When I first started using personal computers (now there's a term that has disappeared), the main issues were internal memory, memory storage capacity and speed. As the technology developed, I kept moving from computer to computer as the capacity of the computers increased in each of those areas. As I began entering thousands of names into my computers, storage and speed were the big issues. I remember having to wait for a considerable time while the computer chugged along just to search for a duplicate each time I entered a name.

The first mobile devices were mobile only in name. They were first called "portable" which, at the time meant that they could be moved if you were strong enough.

Speeding along in this story, computers finally got so fast that there were almost no appreciable increases in apparent speed with newer models. The main issue in speed increases became the time it took for the computers to startup and to transfer data. I just finished backing up one file from one of my backup hard drives to another, newer, hard drive and it took two full days. Now I am literally swimming in data.

Meanwhile, mobile computers became smaller, faster and were really mobile. I am typing this post on an iPad Pro, looking out the window at the Spring snow on the mountains. The development that makes this possible is the Internet and incredible speed increases. Storage for the iPad has moved to the "cloud" or in other words to online storage such as Google, Dropbox, Microsoft, and many other options. I no longer have to worry so much about the size of my device's internal memory. This iPad Pro has "only" 128 GB of memory, which is more than adequate for operating the programs I need to use.

So, let's get down to the issue of genealogy today. The paradigm is this. I use a mobile device, in this case an iPad Pro, to access the Internet. I can use all of the major genealogy programs, because of the keyboard and the capabilities of the device, that I can with any other computer. In addition, if I wanted to use a desktop program, let's say RootsMagic for example, I could then open that program and have my entire file, assuming I have the file online in Dropbox or some other program. Let me emphasize this. I participated in a genealogical workshop last Saturday and I took my iPad Pro. I worked there for three hours helping people with their family history and used the iPad the entire time. The main challenge was my lack of experience with the iPad. In fact, the entire workshop for fifty people was conducted using laptop computers hooked up directly or through WiFi to the Internet.

Do I still need a desktop computer? Yes, as a matter of fact, I just finally ungraded my iMac and I am waiting for the shipment to arrive. What can't I do as well on the iPad? Hmm. Where the mobile devices, including laptops still lag behind the desktop is in multitasking on a big scale. Although, I could have purchased a laptop and simply attached it to large hard drives and a big monitor. Using a laptop as my principle computer may be in my future. But by that time, the tablet computers will probably have all the same capabilities.

Yes, you need to change your entire approach to computing to use a laptop or an iPad as your "primary" computer. The computer stops being something you have sitting on a desk somewhere that you go to and sit there and use. The computer becomes whatever you happen to be carrying with you at the time. All day long, I seamlessly move from iPhone to iPad to iMac to PC in the Library back to iPhone etc. Why does this work? Because almost every program and most of the data that I am using now in online. I have abandoned an apocalyptic view of computing. Personally, the biggest challenge I face is when I go places that have no online connection which are getting more and more infrequent.

While I was in Canada recently, because of the cost, we abandoned our iPhone connection. But we had WiFi for free almost everywhere we went. That is the reality. In my day to day life here in Provo, Utah I am constantly connected. So my work flow involves using online storage, online programs and moving data from computer to computer automatically.

As I write this on my iPad Pro, I could stop anytime, walk over to my iMac and start typing, right where I left off. I could add a source to the Family Tree from my iPad and then see that same source added on a computer in the BYU Family History Library. This is present reality and the future looks like even more of the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

New Vital Records Book Released by FamilyHistoryExpos

Vital Records, A Research Guide, authored by Holly T. Hansen, Arlene H. Eakle and James L. Tanner has been published on Amazon's Holly describes the 192 page book as follows:
As we go back in time, there is a point when vital records for ordinary people were neither required nor kept. Thus, a greater depth of knowledge is required to retrieve the desired information from the records. 
This book contains an overview of vital records, a step-by-step guide to marriage records in their various forms, a review of the laws that govern legality of marriage, regulations regarding birth records and delayed registrations, and diverse strategies for locating hard-to-find evidence in the records. 
You will enjoy this approach to the resources as we take you from common and easily found records to unusual and more difficult-to-find resources that yield vital information for your family history research.
 The Vital Records book joins this list of previously published books on
  • Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. Vital Records: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Ruth E. Maness AG, Arlene H. Eakle PhD, and James L. Tanner. Scandinavian Research Guide: Sources and Strategies. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. The Power of Marriage Documents: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., James L. Tanner, and Arlene H. Eakle. US Land and Tax Records: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., James L. Tanner, and Arlene H. Eakle Ph.D. The Ins and Outs of Probate for Genealogists: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Judith E. Wight, Arlene H. Eakle, and James L. Tanner. British Isles: Research Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Ruth E. Maness, Arlene H. Eakle, James L. Tanner, Locating Ancestors in the Old CountryCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, James L. Tanner, In-depth Census Research GuideCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, James L. Tanner, Beginning Military ResearchCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
  • Hansen, Holly T., Arlene H. Eakle, James L. Tanner, Southern States Research GuideCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Ranking the Brigham Young University Library

By an interesting set of circumstances, my wife and I now find ourselves very much involved in the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library Family History Library in Provo, Utah. I began to wonder about the Library, particularly because I was also frequently visiting the renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. For those of you who are not well acquainted with Utah, Salt Lake City is located in the northern part of the state along the western edge of the Wasatch Mountains. The Wasatch Mountain run north and south and western edge of the mountains forms a dramatic ridge line called the Wasatch Front. Along this western edge, for about 150 miles, there are a number of valleys which were settled when the Mormon Pioneers entered the area beginning in 1847.

The population of the Salt Lake Valley dominates the area. But the Salt Lake City, UT Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of the smaller communities in the Salt Lake Valley, is ranked as the 48th largest in the nation. Provo, Utah, where I live, is located in Utah Valley, the next larger valley to south of Salt Lake City. For comparison, we moved from the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ Metropolitan Area which is ranked number 12 in the nation. The Provo-Orem, UT Metropolitan Statistical Area is ranked number 93 in the nation. But the Provo area has a larger population than other more prominent towns such as Spokane, Washington and is about the same size as Augusta, Georgia.

So, from our perspective, we moved from the big city to the country. However, in Mesa, Arizona where we used to live, we were only about a five to ten minutes' drive from the edge of the city and the open desert. In Provo we live across the street from the National Forest Boundary.

Both the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Brigham Young University Family History Library in Provo, Utah are operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For many years now, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has been acknowledged as the largest such facility in the world. The collection includes over 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records; 727,000 microfiche; 356,000 books, serials, and other formats; over 4,500 periodicals and 3,725 electronic resources.

As I began to compare the two libraries, I wrote about my opinion that the BYU Family History Library was the second largest family history library in the world. Recently, I read several references that seemed to reinforce that opinion. At number 29, the BYU Harold B. Lee Library is ranked among the top 50 university libraries in the United States by putting it above many other very prominent universities. I found that in 2012, the Harold B. Lee Library had been ranked number three in the nation after Harvard and Columbia in the Princeton Review. The Princeton Review currently ranks the library as number 19 in the nation. I also found that the Harold B. Lee Library had been ranked number 1 in 2004 and number 4 in 2007.

It has become clear to me that I have ended up working in a world class library. But what I found interesting is that in the larger genealogical community and even here in Provo, the BYU Family History Library and the Harold B. Lee Library itself are relatively unknown and vastly underused. It is probably important to point out that the BYU Family History Library is part of the university. It is not a FamilySearch Center or FamilySearch Library. It is maintained, operated and staffed by BYU employees. There are approximately 130 Church Service Missionaries that voluntarily staff the Family History Library in addition to the employees. My wife and I are two of those 130 missionaries. The main objective of the library is to support the student population and we certainly do that. But we also have a definite outreach to the community, state and the world.

One example of the Library's efforts to extend its reach is the current series of online, live webinars. These presentations have been ongoing for some time now and the recorded sessions are being posted regularly to the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel. One recent video gave a pretty good view of the part of the Library where we work. This overview begins to explain why I maintain that by being part of this world-class library, it enables the Family History Library to be the second largest such facility in the world.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Analysis of a Relationship for DNA Testing

As I continue digging deeper and deeper into the possibilities of DNA testing as a tool for determining genealogical relationships. It occurs to me that before any testing can be done, there is a need to define one or more specific genealogical issues that could be resolved. At this stage of my investigations and reading, I am not overly impresses with the accuracy of the various companies. It appears that lacking a very specific investigative target, a general DNA test is more of shotgun approach than a well-aimed single shot and as anyone who has shot a shotgun knows, the cluster disbursement of pellets increases with the distance of the target.

Of course, you can ignore all this and blindly get a DNA test. The results will be a general statement of the percentage breakdown of the regions of the world from which your ancestors may have come. This may be helpful or even startling to some, but what about those of us who have been doing extensive research for years and have a very good idea of our ancestral pool? Here is a partial description of the expected results from a test from
Family Finder matches are other individuals in our database who have also taken the Family Finder test and who, through autosomal DNA comparison, are found to share a common ancestor with you from ANY of your ancestral lines within the past five generations. The names and emails of your matches, an estimate of how closely related they are to you, and any genealogical information they have uploaded are provided to you in order to collaborate on genealogy and get past genealogical brick walls.
From my standpoint, the key statement here is "ancestral lines within the past five generations." Why does this statement mean anything to me? I have extensively documented all of my family lines for at least six generations. This information is readily available online and from time to time, I connect with people who are related or possibly related back more than six generations. My least documented lines begin having issues only in the seventh and eighth generations. So, if you are doing your own research, and you have a family tree on, or, you can readily determine whether or not we are related, without a DNA test, by simply looking at the matches or doing some descendancy research.

Further, there is absolutely no controversy over the origin of any of these six generation ancestors. Positive, documented, birth information has been found and is provided online. There is one sole exception to this statement: my Great-grandfather, Marinus Christensen. As I have written previously, Marinus Christensen, (b. 1863, d. 1927) from Denmark, is persistently characterized in family stories as "adopted." Marinus was one of the three children of Jens Christensen and Karen Marie Johannesen. So far, my paper research has not resolved this issue. So the question is, can DNA testing be of any help in resolving the question of adoption. You would probably, if you have been to some DNA presentations, say why yes, of course. But let define the problem with more specificity.

My father is a descendant of one of the two Christensen daughters on his mother's side. This means that he (nor I) inherited any Y-Chromosomes from the Christensen males. My father's mother's mother was the daughter of Jens Christensen. On my own mother's side of the family, her mother was the daughter of Marinus Christensen. So I have no Christensen Y-Chromosomes at all. As a matter of fact, my only ancestral connection with Denmark is entirely through female lines. My father's mother was the daughter of Henry Overson, whose father, Ove Christian Ovesen (or Oveson) came from Denmark and married Jens Christensen's daughter. So I have no Y-Chromosomes from that line either.

Now here are the possibilities.

  • Marinus Christensen was totally adopted and not directly related to the Christensen family
  • Marinus Christensen was a "relative" and adopted by the family
  • Marinus Christensen was the son of one of the two Christensen daughters, who, by the way, were old enough at the time of his birth to be the mother
  • Marinus Christensen is the daughter of Kirsten Marie Pedersen and so was not adopted at all

Absent any possibility of my having a Y-Chromosome, which DNA test would resolve this issue? Resolution of this issue essentially determines if my parents were second cousins or unrelated. Bear in mind, that there are no known male descendants of Jens Christensen except Marinus.

Now, that is one of the exact questions I am writing about when I say that a specific genealogical issues needs to be identified and defined in a way that can be resolved with DNA testing. Absent this why would I want to know generally where my family came from? What would I learn if a DNA test, if it were at all possible, told me I had Danish Ancestors? By the way every one of my documented lines, with the exception of these two Danish families, come from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. The earliest continental European ancestors are 10 generations back and may have come from the Netherlands. But since, I have documentation verified only about six or seven generations back on every family, I would have to leave open the possibility that there is another line somewhere out there from the continent. Would a DNA test help me at this time?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The National Geographic Genographic Project

Beginning in 2005, the National Geographic Society started its Genographic Project. Today, there have been over 740,000 participants in 140 countries of the world. Quoting from the Project website:
The Genographic Project is a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells. Dr. Wells and a team of renowned international scientists are using cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots. The three components of the project are:
  • To gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world
  • To invite the general public to join this real-time scientific project and to learn about their own deep ancestry by purchasing a Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit.
  • To use a portion of the proceeds from Genographic kit sales to further research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which in turn supports community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects
The Genographic Project is anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication.
 The testing partner for the Genegraphic Project is

These videos give a short, introduction to these two related companies.

Evaluating Genealogical Research

I have a rule when I am reading a non-fiction book. If I come to a statement or conclusion that I know to be inaccurate or incorrect, I immediately begin questioning the reliability of the entire book. I was recently reading about about the technological changes in libraries around the world and the author, who was supposed to be a noted authority on the subject, made a statement that showed he did not understand some of most basic features of the new technology. That kind of problem ruins the book for me. If it looks like the problem is just poor editing, then I keep reading, but if I see the same problems occurring I stop reading the book. Essentially, if I can spot errors from what I know, how will I spot errors in the parts I am not so familiar with?

After 39 years of trial practice as a lawyer, I also assume that people treat me the same way I treat non-fiction books.

Now, we find ourselves surrounded by a huge international genealogical community. Substantial parts of that community consist of people with only the most casual and superficial interest in genealogical research. They are easily satisfied with a few facts about their "relatives" or ancestors and have no intention of pursuing any research. This group would be surprised that anyone would consider them to be genealogists. At the other end of the spectrum, we have professionals who spend the most of their time in intensive, detailed research into original source documents and fuss about the details of formatting entries. How do we reconcile this disparity? Out of this huge mishmash of data do we determine what is and what is not reliable?

Unfortunately, my rule regarding non-fiction books is of little help to me in evaluating genealogical research. Of course, I can detect blatant errors such as mothers whose children were born after she is reported to have died, but how do you detect less obvious, unreliable genealogical conclusions? More importantly, that same entry with the obvious data error may otherwise be perfectly reliable. Presently, my only conclusion is to redo the research and come to my own conclusions. To take this position, I have to begin with the assumption that every undocumented assertion is questionable. Then, if the documented assertions are reasonable and consistent, I can then decide whether or not I will adopt them and rely on them after I have reviewed the documentation.

The basic flaw in such schemes as the "Genealogical Proof Standard" is that if the researcher gives, what appears to be, complete, accurate source citation for each conclusion and writes a report that seems to comply with the standard, then you are still in the situation of relying on the researcher's integrity. In short, despite the adherence to formalities and despite reputation, from my standpoint, I would have to personally verify the conclusions. All of the citations and "arguments will merely make my job harder or easier depending on the availability of the sources cited. However, it is the nature of historical research that two or more researchers can look at the same source documentation and come to completely opposite conclusions. Even if the entire genealogical community is in agreement on a particular issue, subsequent research may disclose differences. See the Thomas Jefferson controversy for example in the following book.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.

The important issue here is that the source citations and documentation exist so the conclusions can be checked. When I become disenchanted with a book, it is usually because there is a lack of documentation for the conclusions expressed. In the case of the example above, there was no evidence that the writer had based his statements on any cited authority. If the author or researcher is expressing an opinion, derived from experience or contemplation, that is fine. But if you tell me that your opinion on a historical or genealogical question is a "fact" and that the fact is proved by some source, you had better tell me your source.

If I enter information into a pedigree or family group record for my own reference and continued research, then what I have is my own business. But if I take that same information and add it to an open online family tree, then the information become everyone's business. Individual records from the distant past to the present, are essentially claiming to be correct. Even leaving aside the issue of intentional fabrication or lying, original records are assumed to be correct unless contradicted by other records. For example, if I find a birth certificate for my grandfather, I am justified in assuming the date recorded is correct unless I find another document that contradicts that same information. If I further assume that I have found five different records that have a birth date for my grandfather and none of the five agree with any of the others, then I must either approximate the date or choose the one I think is correct. In either case, I need to show all five records with the five different dates in the explanation for my conclusion. The case where a given date or event has contradicting source records is fairly common. As long as subsequent researchers are provided with the contradicting information, there is no problem. The actual date is still unknown or unsupported.

Even if an immensely knowledgeable researcher were to follow all of the recommended guidelines for "proving his or her conclusions," the bottom line is that the conclusions are nothing more than a vaulted opinion. One example of what I saying comes from a situation I wrote about previously. My Parkinson family line initially had a long list of sources for more recent ancestors. However, despite the long list and the apparent detail of the entries in the Family Tree, there were no sources cited for any births, deaths or marriages. The citations demonstrated more than adequately that the family lived in Utah but there was not one citation showing their origins in England.

The challenge we face, when you analyze all the factors involved, is that we can only make progress in finding our ancestors with any chance of reliability by carefully drawing our conclusions from the existing historical records. Once the information has moved into our "comfort zone" we can then extend our lines even further. But like the situation when I am navigating around an unfamiliar neighborhood, there is always the chance, despite using GPS and maps, that I will take a wrong turn. Likewise, there are many wrong turns in genealogy.