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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Documents from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digitized by FamilySearch

In a blog post of 29 September 2014, Paul Nauta of FamilySearch explained the new agreement between FamilySearch and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Quoting from the post entitled, "FamilySearch and Historical Society of Pennsylvania to Publish Historical Documents Online,"
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP; online at, one of the largest and most comprehensive genealogical centers in the nation, and FamilySearch (online at, a nonprofit premier family history and records preservation organization, announced a joint initiative to digitally preserve select collections of the historical society’s vast holdings, starting with compiled family histories. The project is now underway, and the digitized documents will be accessible for free at
 I was interested in this development because a significant number of my ancestors came from or through Pennsylvania. My Great-great-great-grandfather William Linton was originally buried in Philadelphia and then moved to the Westminster Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

The post goes on to tell about the Historical Society and the records:
Founded in 1824 in Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is one of the oldest historical societies in the United States. It is home to some 600,000 printed items and more than 21 million historical manuscripts and graphical items. Its unparalleled collections encompass more than 350 years of America’s history—from the 17th-century to the contributions of its most recent immigrants. 
The initiative will digitally preserve and publish online the society’s many genealogies and local histories, family trees, and related family documents and manuscripts that contribute to the understanding of many family histories. Collections of particular interest might be those of Pennsylvania’s founding families, including William Penn and others. 
Some of the society’s holdings date back to before the Revolutionary War. The rare histories include family papers, cataloged photographs, genealogies, African-American collections such as a history of the Dutrieuille family and related families, a cookbook compiled by Ellen Emlen during the Civil War in 1865, Jewish resources, sources about daily lives in the history of the United States, and much more.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Handwriting Challenge

For many years I was a partner with my father as we practiced law. My father preferred to write out all of his legal briefs by hand. This would not have been a problem except that his handwriting was indecipherable much of the time. It was common for his secretary to come to me for an attempt at the translation of something he had written. In later years we tried to get him to use a computer, but he was never comfortable with composing legal briefs on the computer and even then the print-outs would be covered with his handwritten revisions.

When I became interested in genealogy, I soon encountered my Great-grandmother's handwriting. Mary Ann Linton Morgan (b. 1865, d. 1951) had very good handwriting and I soon got extremely good at reading everything she wrote. Here is a sample:

Just like with my father, if I wanted to know what my Great-grandmother had to say, I had to learn to read her handwriting. I was wondering what the attitude of my new state of Utah was towards implementing teaching cursive in the schools. I found the current policy on the website for the Utah State Office of Education. Here is what they had to say:
Utah studied cursive writing during the 2012-2013 school year. A committee of classroom teachers, university faculty, and literacy specialists met to look at the relevant research and data. This committee created language for the Utah Core Standards that was presented to the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) in April, 2013. Public comment was requested during April and May, 2013, and a summary of the comments was presented to the Board on June 7, 2013. 
The State School Board voted to approve the additions to the Utah Core Standards that include teaching manuscript and cursive writing and also include building fluency in reading cursive writing. 
Handwriting (both manuscript and cursive) is an important skill for students to learn. Teaching and practicing writing allows students to write letters correctly and efficiently. Fluent writers are able to focus on generating idea, producing grammatically correct text, and considering audience. Even when a student moves to a computer or other device, that writing fluency is important to the composing process.
Compared to the attitude towards teaching cursive in many other areas, this shows a very positive position. It is very obvious to anyone beginning research in genealogical sources that one of the real challenges is deciphering handwriting. The further we go back in time, the more difficult the challenge in reading the handwriting.
Assuming that you can read cursive at all, this example from the 19th Century is fairly easy. As we step back in time, we begin to see some changes. This is evident with handwriting from the 18th Century. Here is an example:

George Bickham's Round Hand script, from The Universal Penman, c. 1740–1741.

Of course, my examples are from English-based writing. There are a whole different set of challenges if the manuscript is in a non-English language. Quoting from Wikipedia:George Bickham the Elder:
George Bickham the Elder (1684–1758) was an English writing master and engraver. He is best known for his engraving work in The Universal Penman, a collection of writing exemplars which helped to popularise the English Round Hand script in the 18th century.
Bickham and others popularized a style of writing called Roundhand. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, this form of writing spread across Europe and into America. A good example of the influence of Roundhand in America is the U.S. Declaration of Independence which is believed to have been written by Timothy Matlack. See History of penmanship.

As we move back into the 16th Century, we find that handwriting is becoming less and less recognizable from our "modern" perspective. Here is an example:

Script type based on the hand of its cutter, Robert Granjon
Of course, these examples are done by professionals. Here is an example from the will of William Shakespeare written in 1616 in secretary hand, a very difficult script for modern eyes.

William Shakespeare and unknown scribe
This particular example dating from 1557, from the French punch-cutter (type maker) Robert Granjon reflects the everyday handwriting of Europe at the time. As we go back another 100 years to the 15th Century, the handwriting becomes more and more difficult to read without intense concentration and study. Here is an example from 1412:

Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve (1412)

We could keep going back in time indefinitely. When we get back into the 14th Century and even further, we find "Blackletter" which is also known as Gothic script. Here is an example from 15th Century:

Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England.
When you get back to the 13th Century, you encounter Carolingian minuscule,  a script developed as a calligraphic standard in Europe so that the Latin alphabet could be easily recognized by the literate class from one region to another. It was used in the Holy Roman Empire between approximately 800 and 1200.

Carolingian minuscule
By this early date, we have left all of the modern languages behind. We have even left Middle English behind. Just in case you forgot your Middle English, here is a sample from the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
 And if you are still not convinced, here is an example of an Old English text with a transliteration:

[I thank the almighty Creator with all my heart that he has granted to me, a sinful one, that I have, in praise and worship of him, revealed these two books to the unlearned English nation; the learned have no need of these books because their own learning can suffice for them.]

Of course I have an ulterior motive for giving all these examples. In the last two related posts and with this one, I am illustrating the effort that is needed for a genealogist to do research before 1500 A.D. I am reasonably certain that most of those genealogists who brag about how far their pedigrees extend into the past have never dreamed about reading any of these old scripts. Copying an old pedigree out of a book or from a website is not doing genealogy. It is nothing more or less than fiction writ bold in an online family tree. If you had the knowledge to read these old documents, you wouldn't be stupid enough to believe them as a basis for a pedigree.

Is Genealogy Big Data?

"Big Data" is a new jargon term for a computer programing and technology approaches to massive amounts of information. Here is one definition of "Big Data" from Wikipedia:
Big data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. 
The challenges include analysis, capture, curation, search, sharing, storage, transfer, visualization, and privacy violations. The trend to larger data sets is due to the additional information derivable from analysis of a single large set of related data, as compared to separate smaller sets with the same total amount of data, allowing correlations to be found to "spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on.
As genealogists, we like to think that we are good at what we do; finding ancestors. In fact, this process, we call genealogical research, of finding, evaluating and recording the information found about our ancestors could be done by computer programs. Currently available programs from the large online database programs such as and and closely followed by, have already demonstrated that computer programs can find sources more efficiently and at least as accurately as any human researcher. In effect, they are tackling the issues of "Big Data" as they apply to genealogy. 

The main obstacle to computer programs completely overtaking humans is in deciphering handwritten documents. But once the "indexing" process is done, the computers can and will take over.

Human researchers, when confronted with all of the genealogical information online, point out that the online programs "don't have all of the sources." I would add the word "yet." Even though significant amounts of genealogical data are locked up in paper (and other media) around the world, that situation is changing rapidly. 

We only have to look into the future a short time to see that the domination of paper will change. There are presently more than 7.2 billion people on the earth. The percentage of Internet usage varies from over 96% in countries such as Iceland, to somewhat lower numbers in developing countries. The total number of Internet users worldwide is over 2.8 billion. If you think of the average family size, you can see we are almost at the saturation point. 

What this means is that in the future, there will be no need for "research" about families. All of the family history data about each one of us globally will, for all intents and purposes, be readily available. Right now, if the average genealogist who is in a developed country or whose ancestors were in a developed country, signs up for or, they can expect the programs to find source records to automatically build a pedigree back two or three and perhaps, four generations. All the user has to do is confirm the matching record hints. If you think about what will happen two or more generations into the future, you will see that our descendants will automatically have four and five or many more generations provided to them by the computer programs. 

At the same time, these huge databases will keep gobbling up the records of the past at a huge rate. As traditional genealogists, we are fixated on the human-based, purely mechanical process of gathering family history data. We talk endlessly about reasonably exhaustive searches and proof and other issues. All the time, these issues are vanishing right before our eyes. Much of what current genealogists do is duplicate research that has already been done in the past. To the extent that computer systems allow us to avoid this duplication, our efforts can be directed to those areas that really need research. 

Let's suppose that, for an example, solves the problems of duplication in the Family Tree program. Let's further suppose that the partnership with, and is successful in opening the FamilySearch records to millions of more users. Let's further suppose that FamilySearch finishes digitizing all of its existing records going back to 1938. Let's also suppose that the rate of digitization of records increases with attention being made to smaller and smaller collections. In addition, let's suppose that a way for people who have collections of records in their possession is created where they can share those records online. Let's go even further and suppose that there are millions upon millions of people involved in this process, not just the tiny number involved today. 

Do you really think you can avoid this inevitable process? There will still be dead ends and brickwalls in the past. But they will be real missing data, not just a failure to do adequate research. Don't under-estimate the impact of this process. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Can I research back into the Middle Ages?

Oriel College CharterPublic Domain
I recently posted about some of the limitations of the older records in the online genealogical database programs. But there is another entirely different aspect to researching back into the dim past and that is the practicality of doing research into the the Middle Ages and, if possible, beyond. The Middle Ages are usually defined as beginning with the collapse of the western Roman Empire around the 5th Century and as ending with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery in the 15th Century. This particular characterization of history belongs exclusively to the countries in Western Europe. So if your ancestors came from Asia, Africa, North or South America, it would be a good idea to study the history of your own place of origin.

From a genealogical standpoint, our main interest is the existence of records of people's lives during any part of the world's history. Interest in genealogy is not confined to the descendants of Western European Ancestors and the existence of very old genealogical records in any area other than Western Europe depends on some of the same factors that determine the existence of records from that time period in Europe.

Gutenberg Bible Genesis
What are realities of doing genealogical research before 1500 A.D? As I have mentioned previously, the first and possibly most important historical fact is that printing with movable type did not begin until after 1439, so any books or manuscripts before that date (and for a considerable time afterwards) were written by hand. The number of books that have ever been published is nearly 130 million. If we go back to the year 1500, we get into what is called the incunabula, that is books printed before the year 1501 in Europe. See Wikipedia: Incunable. The total number of books in this category are just over 22,000. The year 1501 is significant because that is date that Aldus Manutius published his first book in italic type.

So by moving back into the Middle Ages with our genealogical research we are leaving the world of printed books behind and entering the world of manuscripts (from the Latin manu "by hand" and scriptus "written").

Augustine Gospels Full-page miniature of St. Luke as an evangelist, 6th century. 
For information about how manuscripts were made, see Manuscript Basics from the Free Library of Pennsylvania. Here are some additional websites that talk about medieval studies:

The total number of medieval manuscripts in existence is subject to some conjecture, but of course, there are no new manuscripts being made, so the number is related to those in libraries, museums, privately held, etc. For a detailed analysis of the number of manuscripts in existence, see:

Buringh, Eltjo. On Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database. Leiden [u.a.]: Brill, 2011.

Buringh estimates the total number at around 2.9 million but this number includes every handwritten manuscript including those from Egypt, sheet music, autograph letters, deeds, charters and other types of documents from around the world. 

OK, now what are the challenges? How many of these manuscripts would have genealogical data? The difficulty in determining this number is that the libraries do not break out records by year but only by catalog entry. 

Family tree of theOttonians, from the Wolfenbüttel manuscript (Cod. Guelf. 74.3 Aug., p. 226)
To get some idea, you might want to look at the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy website. Many of manuscripts are protected by "copyright" claims from the library or other institution. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can claim a copyright to a book published in the 1300s, but that is what they do. Here is an image that is in the public domain:

Genealogy of the Kings Of England, In A Collection Of Chronicles Of English History And Miscellaneous Tracts
Even assuming that you could work out the details of gaining access to any substantial number of these medieval manuscripts, you would still have all of the challenges I outlined in my previous recent blog post. See What are the sources before 1550 A.D.?

The Dark Tunnel of Time

Genealogists are great believers in uniformitarianism. Unfortunately, assumptions that conditions in the past were the same as they are today may have once applied to the study of geology, but it is fatally inappropriate for genealogists. As a methodology, assuming that conditions today were the same as those in the past leads researchers into dead ends and research traps. How is this belief in uniformitarianism manifested? Usually as a woeful lack of knowledge about history and particularly, the history of the area where the genealogist is researching.

Perhaps a definition of uniformitarianism would be helpful. It was first defined back in the 1830s by Charles Lyell, a geologist, in a multi-volume work:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology: Being an Inquiry How Far the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface Are Referable to Causes Now in Operation. 1834.

A current definition of uniformitarianism comes from Wikipedia: Uniformitarianism:
Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.
This sounds harmless enough, but genealogists are not dealing with rock strata. They are dealing with people whose technological, cultural, social and political lives change dramatically through time. These changes include naming patterns, family structures, laws, political boundaries, social organizations, governments and almost every other aspect of history that I could possibly think to include. By the way, geologists have dramatically altered their way of viewing the past since the 1800s and uniformitarianism, as proposed by Lyell, has been extensively modified.

Let me give a trivial and very simple example of what I am talking about. It is the practice of recording place names. I wrote about this recently when I pointed out one of my ancestors purportedly born in South Kingston, Washington, Rhode Island, United States in 1630. I could give hundreds of examples of this same issue. Of course, this particular example is only the beginning.

In the title to this post, I refer to "the dark tunnel of time." For many genealogists, peering into the past is like exploring a vast cavern or tunnel with a weak and faulty flashlight. They see only small glimpses of what is waiting just outside of their weak beam of light and when they record what they see, the view is so narrow as to be totally useless at best and misleading at worst. In these dark and dismal conditions, the genealogist reverts to imposing what he or she knows about today on the past; of course, if we have a city, county, state and country today, those conditions must have always existed.

Here are some concrete and illuminating suggestions for making your way out of the dark tunnel:

  1. Take time to read a good general history of each country where your ancestors lived. 
  2. Take time to read a good general history about the states, provinces and other areas where they lived.
  3. Extend this investigation down to the local level. Read books on the history of the places where your ancestors lived.

If the person who added the Rhode Island entry had stopped, even for a very short time, and thought about the reality of the situation, perhaps the entry would not have existed. But then again, I find the same problems of understanding and reporting the past as if it were the present every time I examine anyone's online family tree.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Building a Bridge in the Middle of the Air

Frequently, someone will approach me for assistance in finding a remote ancestor. I have a standard set of questions that I ask to clarifying the research objective. I generally ask when the ancestor lived and exactly where they lived. I usually pursue the questions by briefly verifying the time period involved and the location of an identifiable event. More often than you would expect, the person requesting assistance has absolutely no idea about the identity of the distant relative or any of the distant relatives descendants. For example, if the person were seeking information about a distant great-great-great-grandfather, I will continue asking the same questions about each of the descendants of the remote ancestor until the person requesting assistance can provide some concrete information.

Usually, the person's research objective has been selected merely on the basis of a missing ancestor in a family tree; usually in the form of the fan chart. I liken this situation to attempting to build a bridge by starting in the middle of the air before finishing the supports for each side of the structure. Almost always, the missing ancestor is missing because of a lack of adequate research concerning the ancestors descendants. In some cases, after questioning people about each generation of their ancestry, I have found that the only ancestors that they know anything about are their own parents.

Commonly, the inquiry about the remote ancestor relies entirely upon unreliable and unverified information in the generations leading up to the target ancestor. The enticement of an empty location on a pedigree chart is sometimes overwhelming. Some researchers, particularly new researchers, thinks that "doing their genealogy" involves extending a pedigree before spending any time becoming acquainted with the intervening ancestors. Frequently, the places and dates are approximate. In addition, I find incomplete names, approximate dates and places not fully specified.

There is a delicate balance between encouraging the researcher and throwing cold water on the whole project. Sometimes the potential investigator fails to grasp the significance of the lack of supporting data in his or her pedigree. As a result, sometimes we part ways on a less than satisfactory basis. I am certain that the person, under these circumstances, believes that I did not understand what they were trying to accomplish. Likewise, I am certain that they did not understand what I was saying. Additionally, they did not realize the significance or the importance of establishing all the facts leading up to the missing information.

It is not difficult to determine in any pedigree the point at which the information available as become entirely speculative rather than based upon concrete, supported information. There is always a point in which dates become approximate and the places lose their specificity. To the degree that the information is either speculative or incomplete, subsequent generations back any support.

I constantly advise, even experienced genealogists, to examine their data and avoid the problem of trying to build a pedigree in the air.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New Family Tree from is a late entry into the online family tree business. This is evidenced by the continued development of crucial features for such a tree to operate in today's complex online world. Nonetheless, has been diligently working on developing a world-class family tree. In a recent blog post entitled "Findmypast's new and improved family tree," they explained:
For the last 18 months Findmypast have been working hard to build a new Family Tree builder that is clear and simple to use, but also includes advanced features for more experienced genealogists. But more importantly, your tree is FREE to create and keep, no matter what the size, no matter how many images you want to attach, and also regardless of whether or not you have a subscription.
 This position contrasts with some of the online family tree programs in some of these respects. As explains from the blog post:
We have a number of features in the pipeline, including hints and record merging, sharing your tree with family and friends, and much more. But to kick off the birthday celebrations, we have given the tree a new lick of paint. This new look has been carefully designed to make it clearer and more colourful. 
We hope you like the fresh new look, and hope you enjoy building your family history with the Findmypast Family Tree.
They certainly have a wide selection of online family tree examples to work from. Presently, all three of the other major online genealogy programs,, and have extensive "record hint" systems with ways to click and attach source documents directly to the individuals and families in their online family trees.'s Family Tree is also completely free, but is a wiki-based tree and can be entirely edited by all registered users. Some genealogists see this as a very positive feature, while others are more ownership-oriented and want control of their own family tree. Both and offer individually controlled family trees, but also have a fee-based orientation. The crucial feature with each of these three programs has been the degree of accuracy of their source hints. Led by's Record Match and Record Detective technologies, all three of the large genealogy programs have progressed rapidly in their development of automated or semi-automated search and record retrieval functions. It will be interesting to see how implements this type of feature.

There are several other issues that are apparent from the current lineup of these huge online genealogy companies. Probably the most important issue world-wide is the ability to search records from more than just a handful of countries. Presently, all of these companies are focused in Western Europe and countries settled by or dominated by Europeans, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. has the most diverse offering of records, but most of those records are available only as images or are still languishing in microfilm format. The changes are coming very quickly and it is a very lively and interesting time to be involved in genealogy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I saw a ship a'sailing, a'sailing on the sea...

Harbor Scene: An English Ship with Sails Loosened Firing a Gun
Peter Monamy
One of the ways to find an immigrant ancestor is to locate them as a passenger on a ship traveling to their new country. One of the first places to go for passenger lists to the United States and elsewhere is Presently, has 194 collections of passenger lists with well over 100 million records. Here is a screenshot of the list from the Card Catalog;

Some time ago, Lorine McGinnis Shulze listed many of the major sources in her post on The Olive Tree Genealogy entitled appropriately, "Ships Passenger Lists." Cyndi Howells on her Cyndi's List also has extensive links to passenger list web sites. See Ships & Passenger Lists. There is also a helpful list of resources on U.S. National Archives website for Immigration Records (Ship Passenger Arrival Records). You may also wish to try the One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse.

I have also found that searching on Google for the name of the ship, if known, can be very useful. If you do not know the name of the ship, just try searching with Google for the topic "Passenger Lists" and you will find many more resources.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 now support multilingual profiles, with nearly 80 million profiles, is now supporting multilingual profiles. As explained in an email message to me:

This means you can enter names and biographies in multiple languages, and Geni will store them separately, and display them in your preferred language. The World Family Tree is a global initiative by that shows how everyone in the world is related. 
One of the greatest challenges of building the definitive family tree of the world is accommodating the multitude of languages spoken by our international community. With branches extending all around the globe, Geni profiles are now multilingual and users can enter profile names and biographies separately in any of the 75 languages that are actively used on Geni. 
Now everyone can enjoy this rich content in their native language, without having to scroll through the similar information in foreign languages or see a messy mix of names in various languages on their relatives' profiles. Names can be entered in any language on any profile, and through a clever system of fallbacks, only the best information available will be displayed. We've updated all of Geni's functionality to take advantage of this new feature, including searching, tree matching, family charts, data exports and more. 
This means that if a profile name exists in the language you’ve selected for, you will see that name in your own language. has also designed a sophisticated fallback mechanism for choosing which name to display when a name is not available in your chosen language. For a more extensive explanation of these new features, see "New on Geni: Multilingual Profiles."

What constitutes genealogical evidence? Part Three: The Rocky Trail to Proof

The genealogical literature is rife with references to such legal terms as "burden of proof," "standard of proof," clear and convincing evidence," "beyond a reasonable doubt" and many more. On the other hand, there is also a significant segment of the genealogical community that are devoted to the "scientific method" as applied to genealogy. Those promoting scientific genealogical research speak in terms of proposing an hypothesis, developing a theory and examining the evidence to support the theory. This last step breaks down because of the inability of an historical researcher to create experiments to support their theories. There are even those who would support a middle ground that incorporates terminology and methodology from both science and law.

Back in the very early 1930s, the very influential U.S. genealogist, Donald Lines Jacobus, published an influential book that helped begin, what many consider, the modern view of genealogical research. Those who followed Jacobus came to be called the "Jacobus School" of genealogy.

Jacobus, Donald Lines. Genealogy As Pastime and Profession. New Haven, Conn: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Co, 1930.

Jacobus, along with other prominent genealogists of his day, promoted their viewpoints about genealogical research in a publication that Jacobus founded in 1922 called the New Haven Genealogical Magazine which later became The American Genealogist. The title of the journal was not original as it had been used since the 1860s for a bibliographic compilation of genealogical monographs published in the United States by the genealogist William Henry Whitmore. See

Whitmore, William Henry. The American Genealogist Being a Catalogue of Family Histories and Publications Containing Genealogical Information Issued in the United States, Arranged Chronologically. Albany: J. Munsell, 1868. 

There are an almost vanishingly small number of genealogists who are aware of the history of their persuasion. One of the very few sources for an overview of this history is the book:

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

One of the major contributions of the Jacobus School of genealogy was the emphasis on providing source documentation for any derived genealogical conclusion. This is an area of genealogy that we are still struggling with today. 

Before anyone becomes embroiled in the issues regarding genealogical proof or the lack thereof, I would strongly suggest that they gain an historical perspective by reading Weil's book (available in ebook format). A good summary, without much commentary, of the status of genealogical proof (if it exists at all) is also contained in the section of Elizabeth Shown Mills' book called "Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis." See

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.

In considering these and many more discussions on the issue of genealogical proof, of course, I have my own views on the subject. In this series, I have raised a very few of the complex issues involved. Fundamental to understanding the subject of genealogy is a recognition that the use of the word "proof" does not imply either the finality of legal proof or the experimental necessity of scientific proof. Proof, in the historical sense, is never a final destination. It is always a continuing journey. Those who crave finality in their genealogical research will never be satisfied. I would suggest that using the word "proof" is inappropriate. Genealogists can reach conclusions based on the available documentation, but to say that they have proved any particular fact decries the reality of historical research.

It is time for a hypothetical. Let's suppose that I am trying to determine the birth date of a remote ancestor. After an "exhaustive" search (whatever that means), I find two documents. Both of these documents seem to be original sources and have exactly the same degree of reliability. But they contradict each other. The birth dates contained in the two documents are off by a significant number of years. Now, I could speculate for ever about the contradiction. I could propose that the documents referred to two different people or that one or the other was incorrect. I could resort to further documentation to try and determine the correct date. In fact, until I found some more conclusive documentation, the question of the exact year of this particular ancestor's birth must remain undecided. 

What does it take to convince you that any particular genealogical fact is either true or subject to further documentation? What if you believed your birthdate to be a fact and you had a "birth certificate" to "prove" when you were born? What if you then found out that you were adopted and that your "birth certificate" had been changed by the court and that the day of your birth had also been changed?

In both situations, you could talk of the evidence and you could argue the application of direct, indirect, circumstantial and all others sorts of evidence, but the fact remains that historical investigations are limited to and by the documents preserved in the record. Any and all conclusions drawn by genealogical (or historical) researchers depends on the documents examined and the opinion of the researcher concerning those documents. 

Let's suppose that I go online and find a family tree uploaded by someone who shares a common ancestor with me. Let's further suppose that I copy all of those portions of the family tree that fit into my own ancestry. I do this without verifying or questioning the information in the family tree at all. Most experienced genealogists today would condemn this type of "research" out of hand. But, think about it for a minute. That same experienced genealogist will find a census record or some other historical record and copy it out in second without ever questioning the validity of their conclusions. 

What is missing from the common genealogical statements about proof, evidence etc. is the need for methodological skepticism, that is, the need to approach all claims or facts to intense scrutiny in order to sort out what is true or believable from what is false. 

In all my years of legal trial practice, most, if not all, of my clients were absolutely convinced that they were right and that the opposing side was wrong. Usually, in my experience, both were wrong even though a trial of the facts and issues was decided in favor of one or the other. Let's not think we are moving beyond personal opinion merely because we use legal or scientific terminology. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Legacy Family Tree to support The Master Genealogist (TMG) Files

Some time ago we got the following notice from Wholly Genes Software:
The Master Genealogist (TMG) has been discontinued. Official technical support will be discontinued on 31 Dec 2014 but user-to-user support will remain available on the Community Forum and TMG-L discussion list, among other online resources
For the time being, the product and updates will remain available in the interest of researchers who want to communicate their data to family members or upgrade to the latest version. It is made available with the understanding that, while there may be additional bug fixes before the end of the year, there will be no more development of new features. 
See the newsletter for more information.
As a follow-up to this announcement, I received a newsletter from Millennia's Legacy Family Tree program as follows:
Legacy Family Tree will soon import files from The Master Genealogist software

Recently Bob Velke, producer of The Master Genealogist software, announced that his software would be discontinued. TMG, as it is known, was one of the first genealogy software programs I personally used before switching to Legacy Family Tree. We wish Bob and family the very best. 
We have been working really hard and are getting close to releasing an update to Legacy that will directly import TMG files (no GEDCOM necessary). We are working hard to make the import to Legacy as seamless as possible to limit the amount of post-import cleanup that may be necessary. If you are a TMG user looking for new software, give our free edition a try at Import your GEDCOM and see what you think of Legacy. We think you will enjoy both the simplicity and the power of Legacy. Then watch for our upcoming announcement of the free update to Legacy we will issue which will provide the direct import.
This is very good news for the former TMG users.

What are the sources before 1550 A.D.?

England, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. F.4.32 See
If you look through the list of sources on any of the larger online genealogical database programs such as, or, you will soon discover that there are temporal limits to the coverage of their collections of records. For example, if you go to the Card Catalog on, you will see that the earliest dates in the Filter are the 1600s. See this screenshot below:

There are a total of 6,160 collections that include records in the 1600s, as of the date of this post, But you can also see from looking down the list that there are very few that go back into the early 1500s and almost no records earlier than 1500 A.D. Here are a few of the exceptions:
[Note: the links are to and you will need to login to see the databases]. Here is a page from the Lübeck, Deutschland, genealogisches Register, 1200-1910:

There are other records, of course, but what are the chances that your ancestors end up in any one of these records? Before I try to answer that question, let me review some of the linguistic and record keeping history in Europe. I might note that there are places where family lines can be traced back much, much further such as China, where some genealogies go back as far as 200 B.C. or so. But even in these cases, it depends on whether or not you can trace your own ancestry to one of these ancient lines. For a useful explanatory summary of the extant English records, for an example, see 

If you are attempting research back into the 1500s or earlier, you will certainly find that the modern languages spoken today are not the same as those spoken and written in these earlier times. You will also find many of the records written in some form of Latin. In England, because the first printed books did not appear until the end of the 1400s, most of the records and books before that time are comparatively rare, especially those written in the common language and not in Latin. This is true in other European countries also.

The further you research into the Middle Ages, you will find that from 900 A.D. until after 1300 A.D., Latin in various forms was the predominant and official language of the Catholic Church and was used for all forms of scholarship. Before the age of printing, introduced by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439, all books and other manuscripts were handwritten and the number of copies of any one book or record was very limited.

The challenge of this early research is not only learning to read Latin, but also learning to decipher earlier forms of handwriting such as Carolinian script used from 800 A.D. to 1200 A.D. Here is an example of Carolinian in the variation called Beneventan:

Greetham, D.C. Textual Scholarship: An Introduction. New York: Garland Publishing 1994, 184
Here is another example called Irish Minuscule:

Bischoff, Bernhard. Latin Paleography; antiquity and the Middle Ages. Great Britain: Cambridge Univeristy Press 1990, 85-86
The following images are a few illustrations of manuscripts starting with the 1600s and going backwards in time. Mind you, all these are examples of English books:

England, Durham Diocese Bishop's Transcripts, 1639-1919
Now, jumping back about 100 years to 1538:

England, Cornwall and Devon Parish Registers, 1538-2010
Another 100 years takes us to a will written in about 1440:

England, Kent, Wills and Probate, 1440-1881
Going back yet another 100 years begins to be very difficult. The 1300s are well into the Middle Ages and all of the modern languages have changed considerably since that time. To read the manuscripts, you will have to learn at least Latin and perhaps other languages. 

[Officia beatae Mariae virginis et defunctorum]: Book of Hours. ca. 1390 
Now we are really launching off into the past. The 13th Century begins to be even before the Middle Ages. 

[Liber quatuor evangelistarum] Bible N.T. Gospels Latin ca. 1270.
Let's go back another 100 years. I am doing this to illustrate what is really involved in producing a pedigree that goes back before 1500 A.D.  Here is a manuscript from the 12th Century:

[The four gospels in Greek : Codex Torontonensis]. Bible N.T. Gospels Greek ca. 1100.
This last manuscript is in Greek. I am not trying to discourage anyone from doing research back into the Middle Ages and beyond, I am just suggesting that unless you have these skills and can read these manuscripts, you are probably copying and not doing research. When someone mentions to me that their genealogy "goes back to Charlemagne" or even "back to Adam" I always think about these examples of the script and language necessary to do that kind of research even assuming it was possible to construct such a pedigree. I fully realize that there are people who can read these manuscripts, but if you read what they say, you will quickly realize that pushing your pedigree back before about 1550 A.D. would require years of study and hard work.

I have quoted this before, but it bears repeating from time to time first printed in the Ensign magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 1984. I suggest you read the entire article if you think your pedigree can go back to Adam,
Robert C. Gunderson, Senior Royalty Research Specialist, Church Genealogical Department. The simplest answer to both questions is No. Let me explain. In thirty-five years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. By assignment, I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years. I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (c. A.D. 450–A.D. 752). 
Every pedigree I have seen which attempts to bridge the gap between that time and the biblical pedigree appears to be based on questionable tradition, or at worst, plain fabrication. Generally these pedigrees offer no evidence as to the origin of the information, or they cite a vague source.
If you are interested in doing research in Europe during the Middle Ages, I suggest that you start early and begin by taking a course in Latin.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Genealogy: Fact or Fiction?

Does historical fiction have a place in the world of genealogy? In the movie screen of genealogical life does the statement "This movie is based on a true story" have a place? Can we countenance adding unsupported and imaginary pedigrees extending into the dim past? Do we encourage embellishments in stories about our own ancestors and claims of relationships with famous people of the past? What about altering historical photos to suit our present ideals and prejudices? Is our genealogy really nothing more or less than a historical novel? Is all this really an acceptable part of genealogy?

I recently watched a newer movie based on the adventures of the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The movie was a remake of an earlier adventure film made 1951 that won an Academy award. I remember seeing the original film in small theater as a child. I saw the newest version of the adventure made in 2012. I understand this movie was the highest grossing film of 2012 in Norway. See Wikipedia: Kon-Tiki. I also have a copy of the book written by Thor Heyerdahl about the entire expedition. See Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1948. My copy of the book is dated 1951 and would be this edition in the 10th printing: Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1951.

We have no doubt that Heyerdahl and his crew made it across the Pacific on a raft. That could be considered to be an historical fact. The original book and movie were essentially documentary accounts of the journey. But what about the movie made in 2012? Are all of the incidents depicted in the movie historical facts?

I remember when I got home from watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia made in 1962. I immediately went to our old edition of the Encyclopedia Americana to see if anything I had just watched really happened and if Thomas Edward Lawrence really existed and did all those things. As I was to find out, his accomplishments were much more impressive than those depicted in the movie.

Of course this has everything to do with genealogy. We tell stories. We recreate the lives of our ancestors, not just with names and dates as is popularly depicted, but with documentation, journals, diaries and other memorabilia. But how does historical fact and a concept of "Truth" fit into all this?

In an analogous situation, as a trial attorney, I learned that there were three "truths" in a trial: my client's testimony, the opposing client's testimony and the decisions made by the judge. In most cases, any resemblance between the three was purely coincidental.

How much of genealogy is based on reality and could be considered true? One of the most common challenges in determining the truth in genealogical research is the tendency for families to "cover up" unfortunate incidents deemed "private" and not shared with anyone outside the family. This can be anything from extreme criminal activity to a minor disagreement between family members. At best, some of these types of incidents, including illegitimate children and adoptions, can be documented from sources outside of the family circle. At worst, they pass into obscurity and become the mysteries of genealogical research.

What is more important to the integrity of the pursuit of genealogy is our tolerance for fiction. We certainly tolerate enough fiction in the form of unsubstantiated pedigrees (i.e. back to Adam) that we are seldom taken seriously by traditional historians, but on the other hand, it does not take adoption of bogus pedigree to make unbelievable claims. I have regularly run across applications for admittance to various ancestral societies that verge on historical fiction. Is there a core of truth in our research or are we, in essence, compiling historical fiction?

In the end, do we excuse all forms of fiction under the guise that these fictional accounts in the form of movies, books and photographs attract people to genealogy and are therefore necessary? My own interest in genealogy began as a result of discovering that some of the stories told to me in my youth had no basis in historical fact. But what of those who never come to that realization? Are we really promoting family history and genealogy if we encourage fiction? How far can we stray from historical fact before the entire pursuit of genealogy becomes nothing more than an historical novel?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Missisquoi County Canada Genealogy Research Volunteer Group

I received the following from the Missisquoi County Canada Genealogy Research Volunteer Group announcing a 10,000 record transcription milestone. Here is the post:
We at the Missisquoi Rootsweb group ( * Missiquoi was an historical county located in Quebec / Lower Canada / Eastern Townships along the US border) have been for the last 10 years quietly transcribing and publishing records much needed for research in our area. The Missisquoi historic county area,  although located in Quebec was heavily Protestant & English speaking with many immigrants from Great Britain and US. ( Vermont)

This week we reached the 10,000 image milestone on our transcription  project of Quebec, Non-Catholic Parish Registers, 1763-1967 from Family . The 10k mark is for the number of images transcribed,  the number of actual  individual parish records of births, marriages and burials is closer to 15,000.
We make them all freely available and searchable on our blogs.

We haven’t limited our projects to Family Search digital records- we have also  transcribed Library and Archives Canada microfilm Notary records, Google newspapers, Internet Archive eBooks of local directories and posted images and burials to Find-A-Grave.

We use an innovated volunteer sign-up sheet system through Sign up genius,  this enables volunteers to work together on projects even though they actually live all over the world.

We believe strongly in paying it forward in genealogy and think this is a little way we can give back for all the help we’ve been given by others in the past.
If anyone has folks that once lived in our area,  we’d love for them to search our records and maybe get involved with our group on Rootsweb.
Don’t forget how great Rootsweb ( mailing lists and message boards)  is and it’s FREE – check the groups in your areas of research- they may be doing great stuff too!

Blog group
Very interesting and very useful.

What constitutes genealogical evidence? Part Two: Proof and evidence

Do we really want genealogists to be lawyers and judges? Some genealogists seem bound and determined to convert what is essentially a historical investigation into a branch of the law. If you are one of those concerned about "proving" your ancestry, I might point out that one of the hardest lessons to learn as an attorney is that facts alone are not evidence and that proving your case is never the certain conclusion to a trial. But because of the historical involvement of attorneys with genealogy, legal jargon has permeated the genealogical community to the extent that terms such as "proof" and "evidence" are ingrained and likely inseparable, permanent fixtures.

In an attempt to illustrate the differences between law and genealogy that make the use of legal jargon inappropriate, I need to discuss some basic legal concepts.

In order to protect and preserve evidence and to see that only evidence is used in a trial, attorneys in the United States have to abide by certain Rules of Evidence. The facts that are presented at a trial conducted according to the Rules of Evidence must undergo scrutiny before being admitted. For example, if a document (source) is offered into evidence, it is only admitted after the attorney offering the document has laid a proper testimonial foundation. Is there an analogy to this legal system of evidence in the genealogical community? Do we really want to impose such an elaborate and arcane set of rules and considerations on our genealogical research?

For a further example, the ability to lay a proper foundation for the admission of evidence during a trial is a skill that is learned, usually by trial and error, after years of trial practice. Sometimes, the admission of testimonial evidence depends on the way an attorney asks the questions of a witness. I have seen an attorney break down and cry during a trial because she could not ask a question in a way to overcome my objections. Presenting competent evidence in a trial is a serious business and can be a matter of life or death. As genealogists, do we really want to incur these unnecessary burdens?

I am frequently disturbed at the way genealogists blithely use the terms "proof" and "evidence." Put into the context of genealogy, I would say that sources, in themselves, are also not evidence. In the past, I have written about my disagreement with the use of legal terminology as applied to genealogy and I am not so naive as to think that anything I say will change the genealogical landscape. But I will continue to maintain that any analogy between the practice of trial law and genealogical research is ultimately faulty. The reason this is the case is based on a fundamental difference between the two systems. Law is adversarial. Genealogy is not adversarial. In law, there is always a judge, whatever that person is called in practical reality, who decides any controversy. There are no genealogical judges. Without a decision maker (judge) there can be no "proof." Using the words does not create a reality. I can claim all I want that I have "proved" a certain ancestral relationship, but in fact, the claim still and always will remain an argument and always open to refutation by the discovery of additional sources with conflicting facts.

It is very easy for a genealogical researcher to claim that he or she had evidence that proves a particular claim. But as I have already written, the use of the term "evidence" does not, in its self, carry an probative value. In the past, genealogists have glossed over the use of quasi-legal terminology and have even resorted to the use of terminology from jury trials such as "burden of proof" and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" to add a level of believability to their arguments. One commonly employed term is the word "reasonable" itself as in a "reasonably exhaustive search." This phrase has also been inappropriately borrowed from legal terminology. The concept comes from what is sometimes called "The Reasonable Man Doctrine" more recently modified by political correctness to "The Reasonable Person Doctrine." There are very likely tens (hundreds) of thousands of pages of legal writing discussing and debating this topic. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find an adequate definition of this doctrine without a circular use of the term "reasonable" itself. Can you really find even two genealogists who agree on the definition of a reasonably exhaustive search?

The use of the legal and definitely adversarial terminology in the field of genealogical research has led to the mystification of pursuit and obfustication of genealogical jargon.

But in taking this position I am quite literally swimming upstream against a very swift current.

In genealogical research, evidence is nothing more or less than what the researcher believes. Using the term "evidence" in genealogical research adds nothing to the truth or falsity of the researcher's arguments and conclusions. Let me illustrate what I mean by using a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose your father's name birth name was Frederick. How do you know that fact? What if he never once used that name and always answered an inquiry that his name was "Fred." In fact, as you begin to do research, you cannot find one document where he signed his name using anything but the name "Fred." Nevertheless, you dutifully record his name as Frederick. Now, there is a question. If you are wrapped up in applying legal terminology to genealogy, how do you go about proving that person who is always referred to as Fred is really the same person who you find named Frederick in a birth certificate? If you are a competent genealogist, you likely come to the conclusion that the name Fred was a shortened form or nickname for Frederick and do not give the matter a second thought. You do this, even though you have nothing actually connecting the two names. Of course, this example sounds ridiculous when it is applied to your father, but it can become a major issue if the relative lived in the 17th Century. How do you know which of the different name variations you find concerning individuals who lived in the same town and the same neighborhood were actually the same person and which were different people? Who decides? You do, of course. You make your choice and get on with your research.

What if another researcher comes along and disagrees with your choice? How do you prove you are right and they are wrong? Do you write a "Proof Statement" setting forth your "evidence?" Isn't this really an attempt to mimic the arguments made by an attorney in submitting a brief to the court to support his or her case? My point is that the legal analogy is faulty for this reason. There is no arbitrator, judge, mediator or whatever in genealogy who will make the decision. You can throw around all the legal terms you like, but doing so will not change that fact.

Historical investigation involves a fundamentally different process than does proving a case in a court of law. As genealogists, we search for sources. We draw our conclusions from those sources and should realize that any conclusion we make is open to revision with the discovery of another source. There is no one out there who can say we are right or wrong, there are only different conclusions. As genealogists we often despair because so many of our compatriots seem to base their conclusions on less than all the facts (which we inappropriately call evidence). Are we judges? Who gave us the authority to decide genealogical cases? Perhaps we can persuade others to our own conclusions, but that is not necessary. There will always be those in the genealogical community that set themselves up as judge and jury of the rest of the community and they will always be ignored by the vast majority of those in the greater community that do not even know they exist.

Now we get to the issue of scientific proof. Is genealogy science or history? What about DNA evidence? Oh, and you also point out that there are forensic genealogists who act as witnesses in court cases. What about this? That is another post on another day.

But how do we discuss genealogy if we don't use legally charged terms? How do we ever know if we are right or wrong in our conclusions? Remember this is a series.

Friday, September 19, 2014

8000 Historic Norwegian Maps Online

Thanks to a comment from a reader with a link, I found the following Local History Section of a Norwegian website with an article entitled, "Map heritage." The article by Marianne Herfindal Johannessen, refers to an online collection of 8000 historical maps of Norway from the Norwegian national mapping Authority. These websites are in Norwegian and if you do not read the language, you can use Google Translate to almost instantly translate the pages into pretty acceptable English.

The Historic Maps are on the a separate website called appropriately, Historic Maps. Here is a screenshot of the website:

I used Google Translate to render the page in English. I am always interested in any more map sites around the world. These early maps in Norway would be of great assistance to those doing research in the early years.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Generation Compulsion

Which of us in the genealogy world can resist the generation compulsion? We always want to add just one more generation to our pedigrees. The same compulsion moved the pioneers across the United States. The country was apparently empty, except for the people who were living there already territory, and beckoning them to risk life and limb to explore. Those blank spaces in a fan chart format are irresistible. But unlike the early pioneers in America, we can jump over all the intervening territory and start with the search for the blank space. In some genealogists, the compulsion is so strong that they cannot control themselves and they add name after name to the pedigree chart with no research or sources at all. They just need to feed their compulsion with names. Any name will do and at the same time, why not add random dates and places?

Here is an example of this compulsion from the Family Tree:

Of course this Colgrove person has no sources. But it is even more interesting to look at his detail page (By the way, I am sure that Colgrove and his wife, Mrs., were very happy).

Apparently, his parents could not decide on a given name and simply called him "Colgrove." You can see that there are two entries confirming that this was his birth name. What is even more interesting about this person are his birth and death places. He was evidently born in "South Kingston, Washington, Rhode Island, United States" in 1630. 

Now that I think about it, this entry makes groundbreaking history. Not only was the United States around in 1630, but the town of South Kingston and Washington County were also there and as a bonus, we get the state of Rhode Island!!!

My, I did not know I had such remarkable ancestors. Just think of all the things I can learn from poking around in Family Tree.

Well, the last time I checked, the United States didn't actually come into existence until sometime after 1776. Most historians date the existence of the "United States of America" from the date of 1776, even though there are those that refer to the United States going all the way back to 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

As for Rhode Island, I would suggest that there is little controversy over the fact that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 and established the first colony in the area we now call Rhode Island in 1636 on land "purchased" (???) from the Narragansett Indian Tribe. 

Unless South Kingston and Washington County pre-existed the settlement of the land in 1630, they did not exist either. I am wondering what a lone European White lady was doing wandering around in the Indian territory having a baby, but I guess it was entirely possible. 

Too bad we can't develop a vaccine against the generation compulsion. Wait, I assumed that Colgrove and his Mrs. were happy. I think I will revisit that conclusion. I think having a baby out there in the wilderness was not likely a very easy or happy event. Maybe I should go look for a photo of the lovely couple standing beside their rough hewn log cabin out there on the Atlantic coast in 1630. That is about as likely as finding a source for the claim.