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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Why Genealogy?

Each of us follows our own path that takes into the world of genealogical research. Some years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the demographics of genealogy. I found that the demographics of genealogy has been the subject of several scholarly articles. Some of the studies report on the relationship of genealogy to generativity. In case this is a new term for you, generativity is defined as a concern for people besides self and family that usually develops during middle age. See Here are three studies that have considered generativity in the context of genealogy.
  • Drake, Pamela Jo Willenbring. 2001. Successful aging: investment in genealogy as a function of generativity, mobility and sense of place.
  • Umfleet, S. Bradley. Genealogy and Generativity in Older Adults, A Social Work 298 Special Project Presented to the Faculty of the College of Social Work San José State University. Special Project, (M.A.) San José State University, San José, California, 2009. 
  • Hackstaff K.B. 2009. ""Turning points" for aging genealogists: Claiming identities and histories in time". Qualitative Sociology Review. 5 (1): 130-151.
I think I jumped the gun a little, my interest in genealogy began when I was in my late 30s and had nothing to do with any of the assumed motivations explored in the above publications. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was exposed to the concept of doing genealogy or family history at a very early age as part of my religious background. My home, during my childhood, had shelves of books that included several surname books about my own ancestors. We were also told stories about prominent ancestors that became part of my oral heritage. Basically, genealogy became an interest that amalgamated several of my skills and interests including history and research. Genealogical research has always been so challenging that it has managed to keep my interest for over 36 years of intensive involvement. 

Just today, I was talking to one of the volunteers in the Maryland State Archives where we are digitizing records for FamilySearch and he mentioned to me that he had never learned how to type. I am fairly certain that had I never learned how to type, that my interest in computers and in genealogy would have been significantly reduced. Attempts to explain the motivation of genealogists would have to take into account the fact that the numbers of people who are involved include some rather distinct levels. As I have written about in many previous posts, genealogy per se is not a very popular area of interest compared to interests such as movies, sports, and a myriad other interests. The fact that millions of people have taken DNA tests or posted a family tree online does not indicate more than curiosity. Interest in genealogy may be increasing, but many of the indicators of interest such as attendance at genealogy conferences seen to suggest that active, participatory interest is either stable or on the decline. 

So why should anyone be interested in genealogy? The usual pat answer to this question involves discovering one's "roots." The genesis of this interest is attributed to a TV series called "Roots" that aired back in 1977. This date is significant because it pre-dates the development of the internet and all of the current large, online, genealogical database programs. The largest of these websites is clearly with more than 99 million users and 43 million family trees. Even these apparently large numbers are only slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the total world population. You can compare this to statistics that indicate that approximately 43% of the people in the world are interested or very interested in Soccer (Football). See

Because of my church membership, many of the people I associate with consider their genealogy to be "all done." What they usually mean by this is that they know most of their ancestors back from four to six or more generations. But this viewpoint is usually focused on either direct line ancestors or descendency from a prominent person. I could certainly have gotten that impression from the books I have available to me as a child. It was only after my interest in genealogical research expanded past the point of casual interest that I began to realize that comparatively little real genealogical work had been done on even my direct line ancestors. 

As with any special interest from bird watching to raising rabbits, once you become significantly involved in the interest, you tend to find and associate with people who have the same interests. However, that is not always the case. I am significantly involved in photography but I do not go to photography conferences, nor do I take classes or associate with other photographers. I was involved in genealogy for more than twenty years before I ever took a class or attended a genealogy conference. 

Like many other interests, there are those individuals that become well known in the area. We have a number of very prominent genealogists, most of whom are professionals or semi-professionals. But the actual number of these individuals is very small. For example, the directory of the Board for Certification of Genealogists has less than 250 individuals listed. By comparison, when I was practicing law in Arizona, there were over 14,000 attorneys in the state. 

If you were to attend a major genealogical conference, such as the upcoming RootsTech 2019 Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, you could get the impression that there are lots of people involved in genealogy. But I talk to many people around the United States who are doing genealogical research who, like I was early on in my interest, not planning on attending a conference or taking a class. There are many local, county and state genealogical societies in the United States and other countries. Some of these have a core of very active genealogists. But by and large, genealogy is not particularly a group activity where people attend for social interaction. 

I think that the reasons for an active interest in genealogy are highly personal. We should not feel bad because others do not share our interest and we should, by no means, feel isolated or unusual. Because genealogy requires a lot of different skills, it should not be surprising that there are a limited number of people who are or could become interested. In addition, we should welcome any level of interest. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Environment, Culture, and DNA

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school studying Linguistics, the big scientific issue, particularly about language acquisition was "Nature vs Nurture," In short, the argument was whether human language was hard-wired and therefore inherited or acquired after birth. This overly simplistic view of a complex subject has now become a major issue again but the arguments being put forth are now incorporating references to DNA. Ultimately, the genesis of the argument began with the concept of evolution. But many of the issues surrounding genealogical DNA testing are really rehashing the old dichotomy between nature and nurture. B. F. Skinner was the leader of the "nurture" camp and Noam Chomsky was the leader of the "nature" camp. It is interesting that almost all the theories propounded by both sides have now been subject to extreme revision over the years.

Reducing complex subjects to simplistic dichotomies is intellectually abhorrent. Rather than creating a fact-based dialogue, any interaction on the subject becomes propaganda. By the way, propaganda is not limited to political issues. The broad definition of propaganda is information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. Not all propaganda is entirely false but it is still propaganda. Right now, we find ourselves in a virtual ocean of propaganda about DNA and DNA testing. Some genealogists paint DNA testing as the ultimate solution for unresolved genealogical (i.e. historical family history) questions. A small, but vocal, group of genealogists question DNA testing's utility beyond resolving relationship issues in the first five or six generations and paint all other conclusions as speculative and yet undetermined.

Meanwhile, the use of genealogical DNA testing to support or debunk political, social and cultural issue is expanding well beyond determining the identity of ancestors and relatives. Recently, the most prominent use of genealogical DNA testing has expanded into the criminal justice system. It is ironic that DNA testing for relationships started out as a tool in the court system for proving paternity and then moved into the genealogical arena in stages along with the online accumulation of huge genealogical tree submissions and has now begun to move back into the criminal justice system because of the accumulated data in all the online family trees. The propagandists have jumped on this bandwagon and paint the use of genealogical DNA testing as a boon to research or an extreme violation of "privacy."

Depending on your personal cultural background, you may see that publicizing information about your family is a violation of privacy or a polite necessity. For example, if you were raised speaking the Navajo language, you would be used to explaining your clan affiliations and ancestry as part of polite introductions when meeting people. We often use surnames in the broader modern culture of the United States in the same way. Frequently, when I meet someone for the first time, we inquire as to whether or not we are related to a person we know who has the same surname. However, the taboos and personal ramifications of this type of interaction are extensive. For example, let's suppose you have not spoken to a certain relative for years because of a conflict and someone you meet who knows your relative immediately asked how that relative is doing. What do you say?

Genealogical DNA testing has the potential of stripping away many of the cultural norms of our society and adding another layer of relationships and interactions that have the potential to disrupt our entire worldwide social system. We may all be forced to consider the fact that some of our basic attitudes and beliefs concerning our relationships with others have no basis in fact. The most visible of these heretofore fundamental beliefs is that of "racial" identity. Extensive DNA testing is definitely demonstrating that the concept of "race" is based entirely on superficial differences in such things as skin coloring and speech patterns. The effect of this revolutionary concept is dramatically demonstrated in the futile and pathetic attempts by some groups to preserve their personal viewpoints on "racial purity" and "racial superiority" when DNA testing shows such distinctions are illusory.

As genealogists, we have been placed squarely in the middle of this quandary. Of course, we can ignore the entire subject of DNA testing and continue to build our paper pedigrees as if the subject did not exist. Just as the genealogists who refuse to go online with their genealogical data do by claiming privacy or ownership concerns. What is certain, however, is that how we view ourselves as humans and part of a continuum of humans with few biologically-based differences will ultimately become part of what we will have to deal with as genealogists. Meanwhile, I will have to come to an understanding of how I might have acquired Southern European and Middle Eastern ancestry.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

DNA analysis providing evidence of Native American heritage?
Genealogical DNA testing is in the news lately. The test results from a DNA test made public by Senator Elizabeth Warren resulted in the following statements from the President of the United States as quoted in the above article from The Guardian.
Referring to her by the racist moniker Pocahontas, Trump said: “She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024 [Native American,] far less than the average American …
"Now that her claims of being of Indian heritage have turned out to be a scam and a lie, Elizabeth Warren should apologize for perpetrating this fraud against the American Public,”
Hmm.  These comments and the rest of the controversy have elicited the following response from my expert genealogist daughter, Amy Tanner Thiriot posted on Facebook:
I've talked about the fight over Senator Elizabeth Warren's genealogy from time to time, and the woefully offensive campaign to mock her family stories and heritage. Yes, she has indigenous ancestry, and no, there never has been and never will be any excuse for anyone calling her "Pocahontas" or — more importantly — for using Native American identity as an insult or political weapon. And just in case you've heard otherwise, her political enemies are wrong about her ever being a "diversity hire." If your news outlet is telling you otherwise, you may want to find a new source for news.
Here are a few of the issues raised by the statements made by the President:

  • Were the results of a genealogical DNA test "bogus?"
  • Does the "average American" have Native American DNA?
  • What is the percentage necessary to establish Native American ancestry or any other ancestry?
  • What source did the President use to conclude the percentage of Native American ancestry in Elizabeth Warren's test?
  • Are claims of Native American ancestry (or any other ancestry for that matter) based on a genealogical DNA test a "lie and scam?"
  • Are the genealogical DNA testing companies perpetuating a fraud on the "American Public?"
  • Is calling someone a "Pocahontas" now another racist moniker? What about those people who claim descendency from Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe?
  • Is there something wrong with acknowledging Native American ancestry?
There are probably a lot of other questions that could be raised by these irresponsible statements. The real question from a genealogical standpoint is why is this an issue at all? 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Genealogy Hits the Prime Time

When we came to Annapolis, Maryland, we sort of expected to see dead bodies on every corner and in every park. Not really. But that is the impression you might get from watching a popular law enforcement series from the world of TV. Now the dead are featured on a prime-time TV show called, "Family History." The story plot is about a young lady who discovers all the "family secrets" from taking a DNA test, probably from one of the sponsors of the TV show. In my family, they wouldn't have any material for even one episode so the "murder a week" plot is likely to surface in the protagonist's family.

When I write about a media production that highlights genealogy, there are always those who say any advertising is good news for genealogy. Although, I am not so sure that this is the case when you sensationalize and subsequently trivialize the real relationship between DNA testing and genealogical research. Since I don't own a TV and haven't watched network TV except in brief skip-through-the-channels experiences when we are staying in a hotel for many years, I will have to wait to watch until the show ends up in one of the online suppliers of series.

I will be watching for reviews and comments, however.

Monday, October 15, 2018

First Ever Virtual Online International Genealogy Conference

Family History Expos' Pirates of the Pedigree is the first virtual, online, international genealogy conference and it can be watched and enjoyed from home for free. If you have been to a local genealogy conference recently, you may have had a few vendor companies attending your event. The Family History Expos event has over 70 vendors from around the world including many genealogy societies and major online genealogy companies such as You can visit all these vendors and save your back and feet. You can chat directly with many of the vendors and connect with the rest through email.

The event starts today, October 15, 2018, and will run through Saturday October 20, 2018. See this link to find out more and attend this first ever event.

Here is the video and basic blurb: proudly presents PIRATES OF THE PEDIGREE, the 2018 International Virtual Family History Expo this week 15-20 October 2018. It’s free and easy to watch online.

It’s free to watch, but to view the recording and the handouts, register at‬ 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Looking for a Recipe for Genealogy?

Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian American History Museum
If you have ever eaten something that you liked a lot, you may have thought about getting the recipe. Recipe and food websites are some of the most popular on the internet. Too bad we don't have a recipe for genealogy that would show us step by step how to make well-made family trees. Wait a minute. We do have a recipe for genealogy. It is called The Family History Guide. It is a well organized, step-by-step way to become extremely proficient in doing genealogical research and have your own well-made family tree.

If you can follow the instruction to make a simple meal, you already have all the skills you need to get started becoming a great family historian. The instructions are all on the free, organized, sequentially organized website called The Family History Guide.

The Family History Guide takes the complication of genealogical tasks and breaks them down into pleasant bite-sized chunks of information that will have you progressing along to mastery. Your learning experience will be aided by thousands of instructional documents and videos. You can do all of this for free.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Looking Beyond Genealogy Websites

Because of the huge number of resources available on four or five of the largest genealogy websites, we have a tendency to focus primarily on those resources sometimes to the exclusion of other valuable genealogical records. Perhaps, we need to step back a bit and take a longer view of the genealogical research process and adjust our research habits and methodologies to the reality of document and record availability.

Let me start with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that I needed to do some research in North Carolina, United States for an ancestor. I could begin my research by "touching the bases" and checking for the ancestor's name etc. in each of the big online database programs. Because I touched all four or five bases does that mean I have now made a "home run" and can retire from the field? Not at all. What do I do next?

Any search we do online with websites assumes that we have accurate and complete search criteria. This means that we know the variations in the name of our ancestor and all the places where that ancestor lived. Let me give an example. Suppose I am looking for this ancestor:

Cornelius Dollarhide, b. 1746 in North Carolina, United States, d. February 1838 in unknown.

Hmm. Where would I begin to look for this person? You say the answer is obvious, you look in North Carolina. I say, maybe and maybe not. Neither the birth nor the death dates are exact and neither of the dates is associated with a specific location. One thing I did discover with my search is that there are a number of men named Cornelius Dollarhide or with variations of that name who lived about the same time in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and even Maryland. Which of all of those potential candidates is my target person? The main issue turned out to be between a Cornelius in Kentucky and one in Tennessee.

I began the process of expanding my research by looking in records outside of those readily searchable on the main large genealogy websites. I found my first breakthrough on a website called, "The American Revolution in North Carolina." To understand why finding a record of Cornelius in this website was important, we have to step back and look at other details. First of all, this family's verified family line comes from Mississippi. So we need to find out how they got there. It is also essential that we look at the dates and places to determine the jurisdictions of the places at the time of the events. For example, Mississippi did not become a state until December 10, 1817. Kentucky did not become a state until June 1, 1792. Tennessee was made a state on June 1, 1796. Why do these dates matter? When doing genealogical research we look for records created at or near the time of the event in the jurisdiction of the time of the event. In this family, the Cornelius' son, Thomas Jefferson Dollahite said he was born in Tennessee in every census from 1850 to 1880. Since Tennessee became a state in 1796 and the son was born in 1814, he could have been born in Tennessee. It follows that if we find the son's father is Cornelius in Tennessee, then we have good indications that we are looking at Tennessee as the place where this family lived rather than Kentucky.

At this point, I still need more information to conclude that the family in Tennessee is the same as the family in North Carolina notwithstanding the fact that Tennessee was originally a part of North Carolina. I found additional helpful information in the following book available on Google Books.

Hale, Will T. 1913. A history of Tennessee and Tennesseans: the leaders and representative men in commerce, industry, and modern activities. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co.

In that book, it states that the Dollahite (Dollarhide) family came from North Carolina and were early settlers of Henry County, Tennessee.

As I continue to do research using a variety of sources, each new piece of information will help me to be more and more accurate. The cumulative sum of the information I find will eventually be enough to conclude that the family came from North Carolina.