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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Wars, Plagues, and Catastrophes and Genealogy

Wars, plagues, and catastrophes play an important part in history and therefore affect every aspect of genealogical research. As genealogists, we ignore these events at the risk of either failing to make progress in our research or losing our way in our ancestral lines. There are few places on the earth that have entirely escaped the effects of one or another of these major events. If you are in the vast majority in the United States, your knowledge of U.S. history is scant and your knowledge of world history is non-existent. Most surveys to determine the extent of the population's knowledge asks questions general historical events relating to civic education, i.e. what knowledge helps citizens participate in a free society. But from a genealogical standpoint, the impact of national events is compounded by very specific local events.

Let me give a specific example. Quoting Wikipedia, the "Johnstown Flood (locally, the Great Flood of 1889) occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania." 2,208 people died in that catastrophe. Did any of your ancestors or other relatives live in Johnstown, Pennsylvania? You might make a quick review of your pedigree and conclude that the flood had no impact, genealogically, on your family. But the larger question is whether or not any of your ancestors came from Pennsylvania and if so, did any of their descendants live in Johnstown? In addition, the follow-up question is what else happened in Pennsylvania in 1889? What else happened in the United States in 1889?

Here are a few additional events that occurred in 1889:

  • US President Grover Cleveland signed a bill admitting North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington state to the Union.
  • 1.9 million acres of land in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) went on sale at noon on April 22, 1889
  • The Eiffel Tower opened in Paris on March 31, 1889.
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed from coast to coast on June 3, 1889.
  • Great Fire in Seattle destroys the center of town on June 6, 1889
  • Tijuana, Mexico became a city.
It would be interesting is some of the events actually affected your ancestors, but this list could go on indefinitely. Putting your family into the historical context of their time is not just interesting, it is the only way some genealogical mysteries can be resolved. But many of these mysteries lose their mystique once the background history is investigated. 

How do you start? Motivation may come through frustration, but to avoid the need to go through the frustrating experiences, any genealogical research should start by identifying the salient historical facts about the time when some of your ancestors lived. For example, if any one of your ancestors fought in the U. S. Civil War, then all of the other ancestors and relatives who lived during that time period are candidates for extended research into military records or other records associated with that war. This background research is not time wasted. It is part and parcel of doing genealogical research. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Genealogical Standardization: Friend or Foe?

Genealogical Standardization is a constant background issue in the larger genealogical community. Controversy over standardization has waxed and waned and my own interest in the topic has also cycled as other considerations have become more urgent. A recent online conversation with an old friend brought this topic again to the forefront.

It is probably a good idea to start with some of the basic concepts and where those concepts become controversial and counterproductive. It is also important to mention, right up front, that there is no consensus among genealogists on any aspect of the issues involved.

Standardization involves many levels of concern from the level of uniform data entry to concerns about the methods and standards for exchanging and preserving genealogical data. In this post, I am going to focus on the issue of uniform data entry.

Uniform data entry is primarily an artifact of data processing, i.e. computer programming. However, in genealogy, there is an additional issue and this the is the need to accurately reflect the time and place of historical events to increase accuracy and avoid rampant ambiguity. Let me start with this first example. In different genealogy programs the standard for naming one large country in North America varies as follows:

  • United States
  • USA
  • United States of America
  • The United States of America (the actual name of the country)
  • U.S.A.
  • U S A
  • US of A
  • US
The problem with using the designation "United States" is the fact that there are other countries that incorporate the term "united states" into their official name. If we are going to "standardize" as name, why not use the official name of the place rather than a mere convention? This particular issue may seem trivial but there are actually TWO countries in North America with "United States" in their name; The United States of America and The United States of Mexico (Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos). Hmm. This brings up another standardization issue, why do we translate all of the names of the countries into English? If we were to use the strict rule of genealogy and use the name of the place at the time an event occurred, then wouldn't we need to acknowledge the language changes of place names also? So is correct by choosing "United States" while is wrong for choosing "USA" or are they both wrong? This is likely a situation where you can choose your own preference unless you are working within the confines of a particular program that has created a "standard" on one or the other of the choices. 

Another messy example involves the question about how you designate the early European Colonies in America. For example, Massachusetts. What is the current correct name of Massachusetts? Well, it is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So why don't the genealogy programs use that as the "Standard?" Good question. This is where we start getting into murky waters. The programmers want consistency but they aren't too much interested in historicity or geographic accuracy. The issue of the exact or official name of a certain locality does not become important to genealogical research until you look at a place that may have had multiple name and boundary changes. It may seem convenient to simply use the common name of the state, i.e. Massachusetts. But what happens as we go back in time?

The early settlers in what has become the state of Massachusetts (think Commenwealth) could have lived in any one of several modern states. To add some additional interest The Massachusetts Bay Colony is actually the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Since this original settlement included what are now the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and of course, Massachusetts. If you want a small taste of the complications these standardization issues dip into, take some time to read a history of Maine. You will find some of these places mentioned:
  • Acadia
  • Popham Colony at Phippsburg
  • Castine
  • Plymouth Colony
  • Province of Maine
  • Maine (statehood in 1819)
If you attach time periods to these variations you still have the genealogical research issue as to where the records were created and where they ended up being archived or stored. The idea of standardizing this messy sort of history implies that we will give up a strict historical designation in trade for one that is workable and recognized by a particular entity with a particular set of records. 

What do we do with "standard" designations such as "British Colonial America" or "New England" or "British America?" None of these have a real geographic origin but they all are immediately associated with a particular area even if the association is vague. 

Meanwhile, the fact that any particular programs standardizes on a certain label has to be, to some extent, arbitrary. This places the burden on the genealogical researcher to discover where pertinent records might be located. Boundary changes can make these designations even more complicated especially in smaller jurisdictional levels such as counties. 

OK, is there a solution to these issues? Something comprehensive that can apply to every possible iteration and circumstance? Not unless we can get all the genealogists, all the program developers, all the archivists, all the librarians and a lot of other people to all agree.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Patricia Heaton to Keynote at RootsTech Salt Lake City 2019

Quoting from the RootsTech 2019 announcement:
Nobody knows family quite like Emmy award–winning actress Patricia Heaton. Known for her humorous roles as a typical American housewife in big hit television series like Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, Patricia has won many prestigious awards and the hearts of television viewers worldwide. 
Behind the scenes of her career as an actress—and adding some serious fuel for her decades of success—is the fact that she really is a wife and the mother of 4 sons. Patricia has a deep love and appreciation for family, making her a perfect fit for the RootsTech audience.
Patricia Heaton will join Jake Shimabukuro, Saroo Brierley, and FamilySearch's own Steve Rockwood as Keynote Speakers. For the full schedule be sure to check the website: RootsTech 2019.

Alabama State Archives: Wonderful Local Sources for Genealogical Research
The Alabama State Archives is part of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Alabama was the first state in the United States to create an official agency to take care of its history. Quoting from a video about the Department:
The Alabama Department of Archives and History was founded in 1901, becoming the nation's first publicly funded, independent state archives agency. The Archives identifies, preserves, and makes accessible records and artifacts of enduring historical value to the state.  Thomas Owen founded the agency and served as its first director. He was succeeded by his wife, Marie Bankhead Owen, who headed the archives for 35 years and was the second woman to lead a state agency.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History has an extensive Channel with almost 200 videos. Recently, they posted a video introducing the Archives.

86 Discovering Alabama State Archives

Of course, this makes my job of writing about the Archives much easier. The Archives YouTube Channel is part of a larger YouTube collection called "Discovering Alabama." I did, just recently, drive through Alabama on my way from Maryland to Utah, but unfortunately, on this trip, I did not have time to stop and explore the state and the Archives. Here is a link to the Alabama Department of Archives and History YouTube Channel.
The Southern States have a reputation among genealogists as a more difficult place to do research, but that impression should not be uniformly applied. What this series on state archives is intended to demonstrate is that genealogical research does not stop with a superficial review of online sources, but must also include, when necessary, extensive onsite research beginning with the state archives and continuing with the local record repositories including state and local historical societies. Although many records have now been digitized and are available online, a visit to a national, state or other archives will quickly convince you otherwise. The actual number of digitized records in almost any state archives is very small compared to the number of records in their collections.

Here is a screenshot of the main collections in the Alabama Department of Archives and History
The Digital Collections are extensive but genealogists cannot expect that all of the collections will relate to genealogical research, many of the collections are historical in nature and only incidentally valuable to genealogists.
Depending on the state, the state archives may or may not have all of the genealogically important records. For example, in Alabama, the probate records are held by the individual counties. However, huge collections of these records are available from the online genealogy websites such as,, and others.

Watch the videos, explore the website, and search for Alabama records online but when you think you are done with your research, take the time to look into a visit to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Remember to check the requirements for research at the Archives.
Also, remember that each state archive has its own rules and regulations regarding access to the records and that these rules need to be carefully followed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

FamilyTreeWebinars add Closed Captioning to Webinars Closed Captioning

In what well may be the first time the larger genealogical community has provided closed captioning, in conjunction with, who acquired the company last year, have developed and provided closed captioning for 207 past webinars. Quoting from the Press Release dated December 6, 2018:
Legacy Family Tree Webinars, the leading genealogy and DNA webinar platform, announced today the addition of closed captioning to its service. Implemented as a full human-curated transcription via synced subtitles, closed captioning is now available as an option for all live and members-only webinar recordings released since May 1, 2018. In addition, the most popular 50 webinars on the platform and all MyHeritage-specific webinars have been captioned. Legacy will add captioning to all new webinars going forward.
In explaining MyHeritage's involvement, Gilad Japhet is quoted as saying:
“When we acquired Legacy last year, we promised to invest resources to improve the webinar platform and increase its reach, while maintaining its high quality and unique character”, said Gilad Japhet, founder and CEO of MyHeritage. “The addition of closed captioning makes good on this promise and, with translated captioning coming up soon, will help make the webinars accessible to millions of people in Europe and other countries, true to MyHeritage’s goal of making genealogy and DNA testing available to huge consumer audiences worldwide”. 
Access to the closed captioning is available on the Legacy website.

MyHeritage Featured on the Dr. Phil Show
Quoting from the Dr. Phil website:
Dr. Phil says he was always aware of his Irish ancestry, but it wasn’t until he submitted a simple cheek swab to MyHeritage DNA that he realized there was more to his lineage.  
“Dr. Phil, we found that you have three distinct ethnicities in six distinct countries,” says MyHeritage consultant Yvette Corporon.
 I do not watch TV but I am aware of Dr. Phil. The like to his website includes a video of the segment of his show when he learns about the results of his DNA Test. Here is what the MyHeritage test found:
We revealed to Dr. Phil, interesting insights into his family history and from his DNA. Dr. Phil discovered that he is Irish, Scottish, and Welsh (64.3%), English (28.4%), and Iberian (7.3%). He also received 20,000 DNA matches to MyHeritage users from 64 different countries! 
We also explored the lives of some of his ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather who fought in the Mexican war, information about his grandfather, yearbook photos for triplet aunts and uncle, and a surprising family connection to a well known individual.
To see the segment of the show click Here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Expanded Commentary on the Rules of Genealogy: Rule Three

I published the first six Rules of Genealogy back on July 1, 2014. See "Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." I added four rules in a post back on August 11, 2017, entitled, "New Rules Added to the old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited." One more Rule was added to the list on August 2, 2018, in a post entitled, "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again." You can go back to these original posts to see my original comments and the entire list of Rules.

In this series, I am reviewing each of the Rules and expanding on the reasoning and background of each.

Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.

This Rule addresses the challenge of adoptions, foster children, guardianships, step-children, other relationships that may exist in different times and different cultures. You might not see the importance of this Rule unless you have struggled with the identity of an ancestor that may or may not belong in a family. In the recent past, this Rule has been reinforced by the ascendancy of DNA testing as an accepted part of genealogical research. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been surprised to find that the traditional view of their ancestry is not supported by their DNA test. This is particularly true of those who have discovered that they were adopted or that one of their "known" ancestors was not actually their genetic ancestor.

This Rule also implies the need to be acquainted with the changes in the laws of adoption over the years. Adoption in the United States can be divided into two major time periods: before and after the passage of the first modern adoption laws beginning in 1851. In both eras, the idea of protecting the child from knowledge of the adoption has, in many cases, made determining the ancestry of an adoptive child extremely difficult. For example, a tradition in my family was that a particular ancestor was "adopted." After searching for years, I found one church record with the notation that he was adopted. It was only with the advent of online digitized records that we found a likely set of parents for this individual. In this particular case, DNA testing was not reasonably available and in any event, an extensive DNA test among his descendants would not identify his parents.

Here are a few links to websites with information about the history of adoption in the United States. Adoption laws are likely unique in almost every other country in the world. 

So why do we have to be reminded that every person has a unique birth order as well as a unique set of biological parents?

It is apparent from looking at online family trees that there are a multitude of "opinions" about the biological makeup of some families. Here is an extreme example from the Family Tree:

In this case, the list goes on. One of the entries here has the following:

You might look at the dates given in this particular entry. At least three of the children were born after the listed wife's death date. Rule Six is aimed at this common type of error. There is no reason to list all of these potential wives. Obviously, some extensive research is needed before the identity and relationship of these people can be decided. It might be interesting to note that many of the people listed have multiple record sources. 

There are multiple considerations that need to be taken into account before concluding that a child is the child of a particular set of parents. Fundamentally, the birth and death dates of the parents and date of the birth of the child should always be considered. Adoption may be more difficult to detect but continued research or in some cases, DNA testing, may indicate that a child was adopted. 

As is the case with all of the basic Rules of Genealogy, this Rule is a reminder that obvious relationships may not be accurate.