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

Monday, January 21, 2019

Is Genealogical DNA Testing Junk Science?
The story linked above is currently making the rounds on the internet. I'll let you read the news accounts and draw your own conclusions. However, what the stories fail to mention is that genealogical DNA testing is a tool for those with their own research and a robust and accurately researched family tree to gain additional insight. Test results are far from definitive and they only apply if they are used within the context of active and substantiated genealogical data.

I personally find the ethnicity aspect of DNA testing to be amusing and of extremely limited utility. But in the context of a major family tree program, the results concerning your shared genetic data is supported by matches between family trees (or not depending on the accuracy of your own research). For example, here is a screenshot of my relationships on that is completely ignored by the above article and all of the other online reports.

The utility of this information from DNA testing is in direct proportion to the accuracy of your own research as supplemented by the record hints and other tools available on the website. In this case, is NOT junk science. The relationship matches are independently valuable regardless of the accuracy of the "ethnicity estimates." In fact, with, I can go much further and see the chromosome matches using the MyHeritage Chromosome Browser between me and up to seven other potential relatives at the same time. Since it is apparent that those taking the tests and then broadcasting the results have no real interest in genealogical research, the "junk science" issue is itself junk reporting.

On a practical level, the key issue is whether or not the person taking a genealogical DNA test is involved in serious genealogical inquiry. Many of the people whose DNA tests are reported on the genealogy programs as matches lack family trees that enable me to determine how I am related to a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th cousin. Taking a DNA test, as was done by the twins in the story, without doing serious research is nothing more than entertainment.

What about the differences between the various companies? So what? I have two different tests from and from In both cases, the relationships shown are accurate but vary because different people took the two different tests but both tests accurately identify close family members and other relatives. In my case, unlike many others, I happen to be completely aware of the identity of all of my close family members but this is not the case with everyone.

In short, as a genealogist, taking a DNA test is simply one more tool in verifying the accuracy of my own research. The fact that ethnicity estimates vary between genealogy companies is no surprise since I fail to see a consistent definition of ethnicity in any event.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

DNA, Genealogy, and Geo-political Entities

Europe in 1910
If you have been one of the millions of people who have taken a genealogically motivated DNA test in the last few years, you probably received results that included a list of ethnic origins based on the results that included a map showing the present political boundaries of countries with a generally defined area of "ethnic match." The common definition of "ethnicity" is "the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition." See The descriptions of these "ethnic" groups from the genealogy companies include labels such as the following:

  • English
  • Irish
  • Italian
  • England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe
What is the correspondence between current political boundaries and ethnic groups? If a DNA test results say that my "ethnicity is "English" what does that mean? Is there a single social group in the present day country of England that has a common national or cultural heritage? Has there ever been a single social group in England that had a common national or cultural heritage? Can you lump England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe into a single ethnic group?

What are the DNA tests results actually saying when they give you an ethnicity estimate? Political boundaries in Europe have been in a state of constant change for as long as there have been separate political entities. The boundaries of ethnic groups, if they actually exist, do not correspond to political boundaries.

Let's take England or English as an example. What is the English ethnic group? In 2105 results of an Oxford University study showed the following quoted from an article entitled "Who do you think you really are? A genetic map of the British Isles":

  • There was no single 'Celtic' genetic group. In fact the Celtic parts of the UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are among the most different from each other genetically. For example, the Cornish are much more similar genetically to other English groups than they are to the Welsh or the Scots. 
  • There are separate genetic groups in Cornwall and Devon, with a division almost exactly along the modern county boundary.
  • The majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry). This settles a historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, the existing populations.
  • The population in Orkney emerged as the most genetically distinct, with 25% of DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. This shows clearly that the Norse Viking invasion (9th century) did not simply replace the indigenous Orkney population.
  • The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age than do other people in the UK.
  • There is no obvious genetic signature of the Danish Vikings, who controlled large parts of England ('The Danelaw') from the 9th century.
  • There is genetic evidence of the effect of the Landsker line – the boundary between English-speaking people in south-west Pembrokeshire (sometimes known as 'Little England beyond Wales') and the Welsh speakers in the rest of Wales, which persisted for almost a millennium.
  • The analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales.
  • Many of the genetic clusters show similar locations to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around end of the 6th century, after the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting these tribes and kingdoms may have maintained a regional identity for many centuries.
So, if your DNA test says your ethnicity is English, which English is that? Even if the "ethnicity" area shown on your map is a blob rather than a defined area, how many different ethnicities are contained within that blob? What is certain is that the present political configurations of countries around the world do not reflect any ethnic boundaries.

Here is another example of the problem. Some of my ancestors have lived in America for about 400 years (399 years to be exact). My genealogical research clearly shows that most of them came from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. However, they have intermarried over those 400 years with people from other locations. Looking at my researched family lines at the great-great-grandparent level here is the makeup of my lines by birth country:

  • United States
  • United States
  • England
  • England
  • Denmark
  • Denmark
  • England
  • United States
  • United States
  • United States
  • Ireland
  • United States
  • Denmark
  • Denmark
  • Wales
  • England

What happens if we go back another generation? Fortunately, I have the birthplaces of all 32 of my ancestors at the Great-great-grandparent level and as would be expected, the birthplaces are exactly consistent with the makeup of the countries at the next more recent generation. Why don't any of the estimates show America as an ethnicity? How long do I have to live here before my 400 years of ancestors come from America?

These question actually tell us a lot about genealogy ethnicity estimates. They are in fact estimates and they are based on the ethnicity definitions determined by the testing companies. Interestingly, the companies could have given me the same estimate without the DNA test, based on the content of my family trees and as a matter of fact, the paper estimate from examining my online family tree would be more accurate than the DNA tests.

How do you define what it means to be English? Or Welsh? or German?

So why do I need a DNA test to tell me my ancestors came from England? Why don't any of my ethnicity estimates show my ancestors in the United States for almost 400 years?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Step-by-Step Guide to Using Online Census Indexes: Part One: Introduction
Censuses date back to antiquity. The first known census was taken about 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. This census included the number of people, livestock, and some commodities. See New World Encyclopedia: Census. Other ancient census records come from China. The Bible contains several references to censuses and there are several instances of censuses in both the Old and New Testaments.

One of the first records that budding genealogists learn to rely on are the various census records. In the United States, the U.S. Federal Census was mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. The first Census in the United States was taken in 1790 and every ten years thereafter. Because of privacy concerns, the Censuses are not made public until 72 years after the official Census Day. The 1950 Census records will be released in April 2022. Unfortunately, due to government negligence and error, almost all of the records from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census were lost either by fire or government destruction.

Concerning census records in the United Kingdom and quoting from Wikipedia: Census in the United Kingdom:
Coincident full censuses have taken place in the different jurisdictions of the United Kingdom every ten years since 1801, with the exceptions of 1941 (during the Second World War) and Ireland in 1921. Simultaneous censuses were taken in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, with the returns being archived with those of England. In addition to providing detailed information about national demographics, the results of the census play an important part in the calculation of resource allocation to regional and local service providers by the governments of both the UK and the European Union. The most recent UK census took place in 2011.
For genealogists, the first usuable census information from the U.K. begins in 1841.

As a contrast, in Mexico, the census efforts have not been a beneficial to genealogical researchers. Here is a short explanation of the Mexican National Census from the Research Wiki:
While earlier attempts were made to enumerate the Mexican population, the 1895 census was considered the first federal or national census. Beginning in 1900, censuses were conducted every 10 years. The 1930 census was conducted on May 15 and was the first census in which returns were processed centrally. Because of this, most of sheets still exist. This census is widely recognized as one of Mexico’s best planned and executed censuses, and it is also the only one accessible to the public. Due to under counting and some record loss, primarily for the Federal District, the 1930 census covers about 78 percent of the population, not 90% as previously reported. (This figure is based on 12.8 million persons in the database extracted from this census compared with a total population in 1930 for all of Mexico in 1930 of 16,552,722 (see Mexico Population 1930). Since the population of Mexico City was 1,029,000 in 1930, there were record losses in areas beyond the Federal District as well, accounting for another 2 million plus persons not covered in the database placed online by in September 2011.
As you can see from this explanation, census records can be extremely useful, but have definite limitations. Census records exist in many countries around the world, but it takes some investigation and effort to obtain access to the records.

Returning to the United States, in addition to the Federal Census, there are also several local and state census records. Here are some links to resources that list all of the available census records in the United States:

Search for census records with the name of the state or country to find hundreds of additional links. 

This series is a step-by-step guide to using online census records through various online websites' indexes. Using a variety of websites and their individual indexes is a way to make sure that you are capturing all of the information available from each census. Of course, I cannot review every website and every census, but I hope to give enough examples, that you can see how to approach any particular census record. 

Stay tuned. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Using BillionGraves to Document Cemeteries
My recent involvement with digitizing documents at the Maryland State Archives has reaffirmed my interest in document preservation. I have seen graphic examples of the effects of time on the condition of the documents. Grave markers (tombstones, headstones, etc.) fall into the category of important genealogical records that are subject to deterioration over time. Without constant maintenance, grave markers will eventually erode away and disappear.

Programs such as are making a tremendous difference in the preservation of the information available online about grave markers and cemeteries. The most important fact about the entries on, as opposed to those on, is the fact that entries on are linked to the GPS coordinates for the cemeteries and grave markers. This allows users to use their smartphones to record the entries and later other users can use their smartphones to find the exact locations where the entries were originally photographed. I have personally used my iPhone and the program to track down the graves of some of my ancestors. is a free website to look up headstone photos from around the world. Volunteers use smartphones to take GPS tagged photos of headstones. Photos are uploaded to the BillionGraves website either automatically or later with an internet connection. The photos are then available to be transcribed by volunteers. All of the photos can be easily accessed for research online. There is a paid subscription level of the website that adds many valuable features.

If a cemetery is very small, the issue of finding a particular grave marker is trivial. You walk around the cemetery and look at each of the markers. However, this scenario presupposes that you can find the cemetery in the first place. It also presupposes that the cemetery is not huge with thousands of graves. Using, you can also photograph and mark the GPS locations of gravesites where there is no grave marker.

One of my current goals, when the weather permits and the snow melts, is to take more photos in the local Provo City Cemetery. You would think with the concentration of people who should be interested in genealogy, that the cemetery would be long ago completely imaged, but there are still entire sections where the coverage is minimal. When I was in Annapolis, Maryland, I checked and very few of the hundreds of cemeteries in Anne Arundel County had been photographed. You might want to check in your area. If you need time outdoors and some exercise, you might as well take photos of cemeteries.

Friday, January 11, 2019

BYU Family History Technology Workshop 2019
Registration is now open for the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Workshop. This one day workshop is held on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah in the Hinkley Alumni Center on February 26, 2019. The conference is primarily directed at developers and those interested in new developments in genealogical software. The conference is scheduled one day before the annual RootsTech conference held in Salt Lake City Utah. If you want to get a feel for the topics covered by the conference, you should visit the website and review the archive of past presentations.

Conference registration is now open and if you wish to present at the conference submissions are open until January 21, 2019.

What's New at RootsTech 2019
There will be a lot of changes this year at RootsTech 2019. Of course, if this is your first year attending RootsTech, you will just enjoy all the changes without knowing that they are changes. But for those of you who have attended in the past, many of the new changes address issues that became more apparent last year.

On Wednesday, February 27th, quoting from the post linked above:
Previously, Wednesday lunch options have been limited because the expo hall has been closed. We received a lot of feedback on this and will now be offering boxed lunches to all RootsTech attendees. You will find lunch pick-up stations throughout the Salt Palace.
You will need a full registration at RootsTech 2019 to be attending classes on Wednesday. The schedule of classes is changing for all of the days of the Conference. Here is another quote:
This year we are adding a new class session at 8 a.m. that we are fondly calling Power Hour. This session brings together 3 presenters to give short, unified presentations. So, if you subscribe to the theory that the "early bird gets the worm," you are sure to enjoy this extra hour.
I might point out to those who will be driving to downtown Salt Lake City, Utah to attend the conference, that parking is always an issue and traffic during the morning hours, especially if there is snow, can be difficult. Keep that in mind while planning your trip to the Salt Palace. You might want to park away from the Salt Palace and ride the local TRAX light rail to the downtown area.

Some other changes include the fact that there will be no badge scanning for sessions (badges will only be scanned for sponsored lunches and labs) and an update to the mobile app. I suggest you watch all of the discussion in the following video.

Road to RootsTech, Episode 5: What's New at RootsTech SLC 2019

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Comments on FamilySearch Record Collections of 2018
In a recent News Release, listed their "Top Record Collections of 2018." The list raises a number of issues that are also shared by all of the other large online genealogy database programs including by not limited to,, and

The News Release consisted of a brief introductory statement followed by a long list of countries and some specific categories of records that were apparently taken from the Catalog. Here is a screenshot of part of the announcement and the list.

Here is what the introduction had to say about the list:
SALT LAKE CITY, UT (8 January 2019), In 2018, FamilySearch added hundreds of millions of searchable free images and indexes of historical records from all around the world. The records came from locations such as Germany, Sweden, France, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Mexico, and the United States. We thought we'd summarize those countries with the largest volume of new records and images for you and provide convenient links to help you quickly discover a few new ancestors. FamilySearch now has over 8 billion free names and record images.
The way the statement is worded, it is unclear whether the numbers in the list are the number of new images added in 2018 or simply the total number of images from each of the categories of records. For this issue is even more complicated because there is a further issue of the number of total images vs. the number of those images that have been indexed and included in the Historical Record Collections section of the website. See the following video for a brief explanation of this part of the issue.

Where are the Digitized Records on

So how many of the records listed by are images in the catalog and how many have been indexed and are searchable in the Historical Record Collections? That is entirely unclear. But this is not, as I mentioned above, a unique issue with FamilySearch. The real issue involves the use of the following terms to describe the online collections of genealogical records:

  • images
  • records
  • names
  • collections
All of these terms are used to promote each of the websites and many others with the implication being that larger numbers are better. But unfortunately, none of these terms have a consistent and disclosed meaning. What is an image? That would seem to be obvious, but an image can be a record of a single individual or an entire family or a list of hundreds of names such as a passenger list or a probate sale. The other three terms are totally meaningless. Is a "record" the entry for one individual such as an entry for an individual on a U.S. Federal Census record, or is it the Census sheet with fifty or so names or is it the entire Census year with millions of names? The number has to be a rough estimate unless there are some people in each of the companies squirreled away counting every name on every image. How far off are the estimates? Are the estimates high or low?

I am not particularly picking on FamilySearch here. This is a common issue with every online database large or small that promotes their database by representing its size. The real question for every researcher is whether or not the collection or whatever has the record you are looking for. If it does. Great. If not, the size of the collection does not matter at all. 

As an example, I clicked on the first entry in the FamilySearch list shown above for Australia. The list indicates that there are 1,618,183 "Records and Images." Is each record an image or is each image a record? Anyway, here is where the link takes me:
You can click on the caption link and see this page for yourself. There are many millions of records listed on this page. Neither the number nor the link tells us how many of these are newly added if any and how many are just an arbitrary guess at the number of images available. In addition, some of the image collections list are obviously not indexed or searchable and some are not even available outside of the confines of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Although it is unlikely to ever happen, genealogists would benefit from a little less hype and a lot more transparency from all of the online database programs. Perhaps we should forget the idea that a large number necessarily translates into a benefit. Again, the collection is only beneficial if it happens to have your information.