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

Monday, July 15, 2019

Annual Review of The Rules of Genealogy: A New Rule is Added

I published the first six Rules of Genealogy back on July 1, 2014. See "Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." I added four rules in a post back on August 11, 2017, entitled, "New Rules Added to the old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited." You can go back to these two original posts to read about the details of each rule. Almost a year ago on August 2, 2018, I published a new rule in a blog post entitled, "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again." So here is the present list of Rules:
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in Genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
  • Rule ElevenEven a perfect fit can be wrong
Now we finally have twelve rules. The new rule, Number Twelve, was always so obvious that even I could not recognize it. Rule Twelve is "The end is always there."

As I wrote in my previous post a year ago, "I suggest that if you don't know the basic rules of genealogy, you are probably floating around in a lake of information without a paddle."

What prompted this new rule was yet another experience working with a patron at the Brigham Young University Family History Library where we examined her pedigree and soon found that the entries realistically ended long before the names stopped being added to one family line. I have done this, likely thousands of times, and inevitably, there is always an end to every family line and invariably, the pedigree shows more ancestors along the family line. 

What is an end? Simple it is when the next person in a pedigree line is unsupported by the available sources. This would seem to be obvious, but unfortunately, it is extremely common. It takes some courage to admit that there is no substantiation for a continuation of the pedigree line and it takes more courage to cut off the dead wood, so to speak.

You can discover these disguised ends by carefully examining each generation of ancestors to verify that the sources cited support the extension of the line one more generation.

As usual, each new rule seems so obvious as to be tautological but when you think about it and realize how many of these seemingly obvious rules are violated sometimes frequently in the same family tree, you will begin to understand the need for simple, straightforward rules in the area of genealogy. Another year, another rule. How many more do you think there are?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The History of the Development of Genealogical DNA: Part Eleven: Moving from Paternity to Genealogy

From a genealogical standpoint and ignoring all the social and legal issues involved, paternity testing can be a genealogical research tool. When the legal procedures for using a DNA test to establish paternity are followed, the test results are considered to very accurate. However, no matter how accurate the estimate is considered to be, it is still an estimate. As I set forth in my preceding post in this series, in Arizona the test results can be validly considered if the test affirms paternity by a 95% probability. The important fact here is that the DNA test generates a probable relationship. For the most part, the genealogical DNA testing community seems to dismiss the issue of probability.

If you lived on the side of a mountain, as I do, you might be interested in the weather. This is just one recent reason why I have been interested in the weather since I was a child. But we can all remember a time when the weather predictions were wrong and it rained when no rain was predicted or we had sunshine when it was supposed to rain. As this post was being written, for example, there was a 20% chance of rain along the Wasatch Front, in other words, don't be surprised if it rains and don't be surprised if it doesn't. Weather prediction is still a prediction based on probability. Here is one definition of probability:
Probability is the measure of the likelihood that an event will occur in a Random Experiment. Probability is quantified as a number between 0 and 1, where, loosely speaking, 0 indicates impossibility and 1 indicates certainty. The higher the probability of an event, the more likely it is that the event will occur. See "Basic Probability Theory and Statistics."
DNA testing results are a percentage of the probability that there is a relationship between two people. Here is one statement about DNA paternity testing from LB Genetics, DNA Testing Services, "How is the Probability of Paternity determined?"
The Probability of Paternity is the overall likelihood of paternity expressed as a percentage. It is computed using a mathematical formula that considers all of the evidence in a case—both genetic evidence (Combined Paternity Index) and the non-genetic evidence (Prior Probability). In this computation, the Combined Paternity Index is “converted” to a percentage based on an unbiased assumption that the Prior Probability is 50% (or 0.5)—a neutral value which means that, prior to DNA testing, the alleged father is considered equally likely to be the biological father as he is not to be the biological father. A DNA test result with a Probability of Paternity of 0% means that the alleged father is excluded, or cannot be the biological father. A DNA test result with a Probability of Paternity of 99% or greater means that the alleged father is most likely the biological father.
Do you have more or less confidence in DNA testing than you have for weather forecasting? Returning to the issue of being switched at birth, if you have been doing genealogical research for years, how do you know that each relationship link in your pedigree is accurate even if all the historical sources seem to support your conclusions? When we are dealing with historical records isn't there always some measure of uncertainty? Don't we need to recognize that DNA testing is just another way of expressing the probability of a relationship? Here is one view on the subject of DNA testing from a Scientific American article entitled, "How Accurate Are Online DNA Tests?"
When it comes to ancestry, DNA is very good at determining close family relations such as siblings or parents, and dozens of stories are emerging that reunite or identify lost close family members (or indeed criminals). For deeper family roots, these tests do not really tell you where your ancestors came from. They say where DNA like yours can be found on Earth today. By inference, we are to assume that significant proportions of our deep family came from those places. But to say that you are 20 percent Irish, 4 percent Native American or 12 percent Scandinavian is fun, trivial and has very little scientific meaning. We all have thousands of ancestors, and our family trees become matted webs as we go back in time, which means that before long, our ancestors become everyone’s ancestors. Humankind is fascinatingly closely related, and DNA will tell you little about your culture, history and identity.
Now we get to a core issue. If you review my previous post, you will see that there are some rather strict rules for using DNA test results in court. Part of these rules deals with the issue of the chain of custody. Here is a short explanation of the concept from Wikipedia: Chain of Custody.
Chain of custody (CoC), in legal contexts, is the chronological documentation or paper trail that records the sequence of custody, control, transfer, analysis, and disposition of physical or electronic evidence. Of particular importance in criminal cases, the concept is also applied in civil litigation—and sometimes more broadly in drug testing of athletes, and in supply chain management, e.g. to improve the traceability of food products, or to provide assurances that wood products originate from sustainably managed forests. It is often a tedious process that has been required for evidence to be shown legally in court. Now however, with new portable technology that allows accurate laboratory quality results from the scene of the crime, the chain of custody is often much shorter which means evidence can be processed for court much faster.
The term is also sometimes used in the fields of history, art history, and archives as a synonym for provenance (meaning the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object, document or group of documents), which may be an important factor in determining authenticity.
What is lacking in the online, genealogical DNA testing procedure is a documented chain of custody. If you have a well-researched family tree, your DNA testing results may be substantiated to some extent by your paper-research but there is always a degree of uncertainty. For example, let's suppose that you take a genealogical DNA test that shows you have a particular relative, could you use that test result in court? Not likely at all would be the answer. What if you had done substantial historical (genealogical) research and had supporting sources? Taken together, both the historical research and the DNA test may become evidence. To repeat a statement I have made several times, the extent that DNA testing results seem to confirm well-done historical research, those results are useful in confirming the conclusions drawn from the historical research. However, in the absence of a source-based family tree showing a relationship, the DNA test becomes much less useful in producing accurate and reliable results. Just as a DNA test, by itself, cannot establish paternity in a court, a genealogical DNA test should not be automatically assumed to be correct without external confirming historical (genealogical) research. 

Stay tuned for the next post in this series. 

See these previous posts:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:
Part Eight:
Part Nine:
Part Ten:

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Five -- What is worth preserving?

The real question behind all digital preservation efforts is determining what is worth preserving. Obviously, the incremental cost of digital storage has been falling for years. It is much easier today to simply be expansively eclectic and save everything. You can buy a 1 Terabyte hard drive for less than $50 and jump up to an 8 Terabyte hard drive for less than $140. The price of Solid State Drives (SSDs) is also falling rapidly. In a sense, we can be digital hoarders and save even electronic trivia.

As genealogists, we often have a hard time distinguishing between a "historically and genealogically valuable" document or item and something that has real worth. For example, I have been writing a regular journal for over forty years. Except for the first few years on paper, the entire journal is a series of files on my computer comprised of tens of thousands of pages. Using that document, someone could write a multi-volume book about my life. What are the chances this will ever happen? About zero. Is the journal a valuable historical or genealogical document? I think most historians and genealogists would agree that it is. Oh, I should also mention that my hard drives contain hundreds of thousands of digitized genealogy files including tens of thousands of photos. What about the preservation of the mammoth journal and all the rest?

Well, the answer to that question is the point of this whole series. Presently, I have an entire copy on my main computer which is backed up automatically every few hours during the day. I then have three additional backup hard drives that I use for specific back up areas. The entire computer system including all of the external hard drives is then backed up regularly to a cloud-based storage system.

Where is the weak link in this backup strategy? The weak link is the paywall online backup provider. The simple reason for this, as I have written many times in the past, is that when I become incapacitated or die, who will continue to pay for the online storage or even have access to it? Digital preservation requires active participation by a permanent agency or individual who will make the effort to keep maintaining access to the digitized files.

This is the main difference between our present system of digital preservation and the preservation of analog devices such as paper books is that my paper books can sit on my shelves for years and except for slow, inevitable, chemical changes, they will still be readable in fifty or a hundred years. Granted, someone could throw the books away but almost all of these books are also likely available someplace else in the world. With maybe one or two exceptions, there are no unique items in the thousands of books I have accumulated. Mind you, I am not talking here about some kind of market value. Some "collectible" books obviously have a dollar value but from an information preservation standpoint, a first-edition book has exactly the same value as the millionth copy of the same book. So a book can just sit there and be preserved.

But before you start thinking about reducing all your genealogy to paper, you need to realize that a privately published paper book is not the answer. Remember, when I talk about a book, I am talking about published material that has found its way into perhaps hundreds of libraries. As genealogists. when we base our research efforts on paper, we are creating "unique" documents. One copy of a paper record is in just as precarious position as one digital copy.

This gives us a basic criterion for determining what is worth preserving: uniqueness.

Now it is time to ask, what is necessary to preserve the digital files on my computer's hard drives?

Digital preservation has two main challenges that are not shared with paper books: device obsolescence and file format obsolescence. Unlike a book sitting on a shelf, a file on a storage media such as a hard drive can become unreadable merely because of the passage of time. This occurs as the devices used to store the information become inaccessible (think floppy disks) or because the operating systems and programs change over very short periods of time (think of an old computer program you can no longer use on any present-day computer).

To preserve the information in a digital file, it must be periodically migrated to newer hardware, programs, operating systems, and file formats as those change over time. 

Backing up the files is only the first, small step in preserving them. The files cannot be "left on the shelf." Every day they sit on your computer, the danger of their loss increases with every incremental change in upgraded operating systems and programs. I have had any number of hard drive failures and it is only because I back up with multiple hard drives and continually buy new hard drives that I can maintain all my information.

Now a note specifically about genealogy. Your genealogical data should be constantly being transferred to a free, permanently maintained, online database such as If you do nothing else, at least your file information, photos, stories, audio files, and etc. will survive you.

Here is a summary of the process:

1. Acquisition of digital files through direct entry of information or transfer from paper-based documents
2. Maintenance of digital files through multiple layered backup systems involving both local and remote storage
3. Periodic migration of all of the digital files as programs and operating systems change or are upgraded
4. Regular and frequent upgrade of all hardware including the entire computer system.
5. Sharing all information with an online storage entity such as

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Four -- What is digital preservation?

Before going much further with this series on digital preservation, it is important to understand the concept of digitization and what is meant by digital preservation.

A physical duplication process such as photocopies, printed books, actual physical photographs, etc. is called an analog process. For example, if I make a recording on tape, that is an analog process. Each analog copy is a unique physical representation of the original. If a book is printed and then reprinted with thousands or even millions of copies, it is unlikely that such a book will disappear. However, as I found out, several of my old paperback books purchased when I was a teenager simply disintegrated from the acid in the paper. The cost of making a replica of a historically valuable object or preserving a valuable document can be considerable. An example of the cost of preservation of physical objects is the efforts taken to preserve copies of the founding documents of the United States of America including the Declaration of Independence. See "The Science of Saving the Declaration of Independence."

If a unique physical object (analog) is lost or destroyed, it is gone and cannot be reproduced. Internationally, vast museums have been established to protect and preserve our cultural heritage.

A digital copy is created electronically by the use of a sensor that converts light waves into electrical impulses. The resolution of the image is determined by the number of discrete sensor elements generally referred to as pixels. Long before computers were invented, photographers and painters realized that the amount of detail in a photograph or painting depended on the physical size of the photographic grains or picture elements. Hence, there were painters who were called pointillists who painted with dots. Here is a small part of a painting by Georges Seurat (1859-1891) showing the dots.

By Georges Seurat - Œuvre appartenant au musée de l'Annonciade de Saint-Tropez, Public Domain,
Close up, the image appears rough and lacking in detail but viewed from a distance, the resolution of your eye blends the dots into a recognizable image.

The images can then be stored electronically and viewed using a display device that converts the electrical impulses back into visible light. In the very short time that the digital copy process (digital photography) has been available, the number of digital images has grown unimaginably quickly. Granted making a digital copy of a document or other physical object is still a physical copy and not the original but if a document is originally digitally created, there really is no "original" as such because each digital copy can be exactly the same as the original.

Over the years that I worked as a trial attorney in Arizona, I saw the transformation from physical copies to digital copies dramatically illustrated in court rules and procedures. When I first started to practice law, it a document was in dispute in a court case, such as a deed or contract, the "original" physical signed copy had to be produced in court as evidence. As attorneys, we spent a lot of time and money obtaining "certified copies" of documents that could not be produced. We also had to go through an elaborate procedure at trial to lay a foundation through testimony from witnesses as to the validity of the original before it could be accepted as evidence. Over time, the court rules changed and eventually, any photocopy of an original was accepted with a minimum of testimony. Today, all the pleadings filed in a court case in Maricopa County, Arizona (the county where Phoenix is located) are done electronically. This shift on the court rules is fairly uniform across all the jurisdictions in the United States.

Notwithstanding this dramatic shift in the legal requirements for "original documents" many people still think that there is something wrong with accepting a digitized copy of a document. They also confuse the preservation of an actual physical document with the preservation of the information contained within the document. In addition, people obsess with the idea that an electronic document can be lost instantly. They forget that a fire, a shredder or a garbage bin can effectively destroy any physical document just as effectively. What is missing is the need for a clear understanding of what is meant by document preservation for both physical and electronic documents.

Digital preservation is accomplished by creating multiple copies of important documents that are worth preserving in different venues or locations. We commonly refer to this process as "backing up" our data. Ultimately, digital preservation goes beyond backups and shares almost all the different aspects and considerations of preservation with the preservation of physical documents and objects. Both aspects of preservation also share the main preservation issue of access. It does no good to "preserve" a physical document or object or even an electronic digital file if those who need to examine the file or object do not have access.

A classic example of this access issue is epitomized by the United States National Archives and Records Administration. The U.S. National Archives houses billions of paper documents located in the main archive storage areas around Washington, D.C. and in branch archives around the United States. Only a vanishing small percentage of these documents have been digitized. The bulk of the paper sits in huge storage facilities. Obtaining access to this stored information is nearly impossible for nearly all researchers other than those who dedicate years of their life to working in the Archives doing research. Here is an example of this issue from the National Archives' website.
Here is the U.S. Archives and Records Administration statement on Accessibility.
What is missing from this statement on accessibility is the fact that nearly all the records referred to are only a small part of the rest of the documents that are not on microfilm or digitized on their website. If you dig into the website you will find that there are proportionately few U.S. Archive records that are reasonably accessible by anyone except very experienced and persistent researchers.

The same problem exists with small personal collections of records.  By this, I mean the collections of family records that many genealogists have in their storage areas such as a basement or garage. Not only are these records in danger of loss they are also totally inaccessible.

What is the solution? Well, that is the reason I am writing this series. I will get back to this ultimate question in subsequent posts. But the basic start to resolving these issues is to begin digitizing your own records; every single document, photo, and artifact that you possess. Start now. Do it.

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Help The Family History Guide with Pass-Along-Cards and AmazonSmile
Handy, fold-over pass-along cards for The Family History Guide are now available. Each double-sided, unfolded card is twice the size of a standard business card; when folded they take up the same vertical and horizontal space as a business card. The cards are printed on high-quality matte stock.

The Family History Guide is a free site for everyone. We have great things in store for the site, so we greatly appreciate your support in helping family history dreams come true. You can support The Family History Guide by passing along the pre-printed pass-along-cards or also by making a direct donation to The Family History Guide Association. 

To make a donation to The Family History Guide using PayPal or credit card, click the button below. Your name will be listed in the Sponsors List (or if you wish to remain anonymous, please indicate that in your PayPal notes or in an email to Donations made by companies and businesses may be tax-deductible; consult your tax professional for details.

How does all this work? The Family History Guide is an extensive, structured, and sequenced website for learning about genealogy and genealogical research. It has been created by volunteers who are dedicated to helping everyone learn about their family history in a way that makes sense. Realistically, the development, construction, and maintenance of the website cost money. The Family History Guide Association was established to provide funding for the free website. The Family History Guide Association is a 501(c)(3) corporation and as such donations may be tax deductible.

There are several ways to donate. One productive and easy way is to use Amazon Smile and name The Family History Guide Association as your donation partner. Here is an explanation of how Amazon Smile can help The Family History Guide.
AmazonSmile is a website operated by Amazon with the same products, prices, and shopping features as The difference is that when you shop on AmazonSmile, the AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products to the charitable organization of your choice. 
Every item available for purchase on is also available on AmazonSmile ( at the same price. You will see eligible products marked "Eligible for AmazonSmile donation" on their product detail pages.
It is a good idea to "check out" charitable organizations before making a donation. In the case of The Family History Guide Association, you can find out about the association from the GuideStar website.
 As a member of the Board of Directors, I am very much involved with The Family History Guide website and The Family History Guide Association. Please take the time to find out about The Family History Guide.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Invitation to MyHeritage LIVE Conference 2019

Invitation to MyHeritage LIVE Conference

This short video is an invitation to attend the MyHeritage LIVE Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from September 6th to the 8th, 2019.

I have been experimenting with different video media and this video resides on my YouTube Channel. You can see this and other videos at the following:

Speaker Schedule for MyHeritage LIVE in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The speaker schedule and topics have been announced for the LIVE Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on September 6th - 8th. My wife and I are excited to be able to attend this year's conference and I will be presenting two classes.

Here is part of the announcement for the Conference:
The conference is open to anyone who would like to learn more about MyHeritage. There will be three tracks: genealogy, DNA, and hands-on workshops, designed to suit all levels of experience, plus plenty of opportunities to ask questions and meet other MyHeritage users and genealogy enthusiasts. All sessions will be in English.
Here is some additional information about the conference. 
Additional highlights include guided canal tours in Amsterdam and a guest appearance by two sisters reunited by a MyHeritage DNA test. You won’t want to miss out on the exclusive Saturday night party featuring fabulous live music performances! 
Tickets include entry to the Friday afternoon drinks reception, the keynote, and all conference sessions. They also include full lunches and coffee breaks on Saturday and Sunday, plus entry to the exclusive Saturday night party. Space is limited, so please reserve your spot ASAP! Early bird pricing ends on July 31, 2019.
You can see selections from last year's conference at this link:

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Understanding MyHeritage's Record Matching Technology

Back in June of 2012, began a revolution in the world of online genealogical database website with the introduction of SuperSearch™. The key factors in this revolution were the vast increase in the accuracy and expansion of the coverage of the searches automatically made on behalf of those users who maintained a family tree on the website. Over the years, the number of records searched, the accuracy, and the depth of the searches have continued to increase. However, the full benefit of this sophisticated technology is only available to those users who have a Premium Plus subscription to the program and also include a further data subscription. From my own experience, the benefits of these advanced tools far outweigh their cost to the user.

One of the main benefits of the SuperSearch™technology is the constant searching of over 9.7 billion historical records. All of the individuals in your personal family tree matched to all of the records. If you have a large family tree, such as mine, the number of matches can easily run into the thousands as you can see from the image above showing that I have a reservoir of over 6,000 Record Matches. My experience here in the United States is that most new users almost immediately begin to get results from the Smart Matching™technology but Record Matches depend on adding enough information to a family tree to connect with the records on the website.

With millions of new records being regularly added to the MyHeritage collections, over time, you should begin to see results from the Record Matches. If you are wondering what records are available on the website, you can see the entire collection in the Collections Catalog located under the Research tab on the menu bar at the top of the website's pages.

When you have a family tree on the website, you will find links to each individual's Record Matches and Smart Matches in the form of icons. The little brown icons represent Record Matches and the little green icons represent Smart Matches.

The icons represent the presence of Record Matches but not the total number. Here is an example of what you might see if you click on a Record Match icon.

In addition to the icons on the individuals on your family tree, you can also see lists of the Smart Matches either by the sources in the record collections or by individuals. Here are images of the two options. The links to these lists are under the Discoveries tab on the menu bar. Here is a screenshot of matches by people:

And here is a screenshot of matches by source:

If you find a source you wish to attach to an individual in your family tree, here is the process. I found this Record Match to a newspaper account for one of my ancestors.

Now I can review the match.

Different parts of the screen scroll and are not adequately represented by the screenshot. 
The question here is whether or not the record applies to the person listed on the left from your own family tree.

In addition to the individual record match, has extended the search using the MyHeritage Record Detective technology and found 40 additional records. These additional records need to be individually evaluated. Here is a screenshot of some of these additional records.

Not all of the Record Detective records pertain to the main individual. They could be anyone related to this particular individual in some way or that are mentioned in the primary record. Here is a short explanation of the Record Detective technology:
Most of MyHeritage’s technologies begin with your family tree, which is the obvious starting point for finding matches relevant to your family history. But what if you have searched on SuperSearch™, and have found a record that is a good fit for one of your ancestors? In this case, your starting point is a record, not your family tree. 
This is where the Record Detective™steps in. The Record Detective™ looks to see if this record is connected with any people on MyHeritage family trees and if those people have matches to other people or other records. If so, then these other records are about the same person as the record that you’re looking at now. Record Detective™ goes behind the scenes to try to find other records about the same person you’re looking at and magically delivers more relevant records to you. 
All of this is done automatically with extremely high accuracy, thanks to the accuracy of the underlying Record Matching and Smart Matching™ technologies. 
With the Record Detective™, records know who they are about — every record can lead to more records about the same person.  
As you can probably tell from what I have already written, you could spend a considerable amount of time adding records to your family tree just from on main record search. However, you can focus on specific people rather than be driven by the matching technology. But if you are just starting out with a few people in your family tree, I suggest you may wish to keep adding records as they are found until you become interested in a specific family line or exhaust the immediate resources on the website.

I should mention that as I worked on adding these sources, the number of Record Detective sources quickly rose to 88. As you proceed to add sources and individuals to your family tree, you will soon begin to realize the importance of carefully examining and evaluating those records to make sure you are accurately attaching correctly identified records to individuals in the family tree and also obtaining all of the information from the records.

Friday, June 28, 2019

What is Ethnicity and Why Do We Care?

Ethnicity is the big drawing card for genealogical DNA testing. If you obtained a DNA test some time ago, you might have noticed that your "Ethnicity Estimate" has changed, possibly dramatically, since you received your first results. The superficial key here is in the term "estimate." But there is an even more serious issue with the term "ethnicity."

By common definition, ethnicity is the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. If you think about what this says, you realize that ethnicity has nothing to do with "race."  But the real questions for genealogists is this: how does a national or cultural tradition get passed along through your DNA?

Let me give you an example. According to my extensive genealogical research over the past 37 or so years, my "ethnicity" does not exist. I do not belong to any specific social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. My "social group" consists of people from all over the world speaking dozens of different languages. Personally, I have lived in three different countries for years at a time and spoken two different languages. I cannot claim any kind of common national or cultural tradition. As I write this, I am eating flan for breakfast with jugo de naranja. I certainly do not share any cultural or national traditions with my Danish ancestors and from the movies, I have seen of England, I share hardly anything (except a form of English) with my English, Scottish, Irish, and Welch ancestors. I have more Latin-American and Spanish language traditions than either British or Danish.

So when the DNA test results tell me that I am a certain percentage English or Scottish or Welsh or whatever, what does that tell me? Oh, but you say. What the DNA testing companies are really trying to tell you is where your remote ancestors came from. Surprise. I already knew all that. But telling me that I have a certain percentage of English ancestors doesn't tell me anything about their national or cultural traditions.

What is a DNA test telling me or you about our ancestors? Interestingly, very little. What a DNA test does tell you is that you share certain selected DNA genetic sequences that match other people with the same DNA genetic sequences. Currently, with my DNA tests, I match up with thousands and people from all over the world. It is no surprise that the vast majority of these matches are from people in the United States. Tabulating the other matches from one DNA test shows matches from 39 different countries. How am I supposed to choose my ethnicity?

Out of my thousands of ancestors who lived in the United States, what was their common social group with a national or cultural tradition?

Let's start with the basics. First of all the DNA test confirmed that some of the siblings (those who have taken the same DNA test) are my siblings, i.e. we share the same parents. However, past that point, I have little to go by on most of my ancestral lines. We are presently looking at a claimed relationship to one of my remote Tanner ancestors that we cannot substantiate through genealogical research. The few cases where we can substantiate a relationship through a common ancestor are not surprising or particularly informative. But isn't this repeating my common observation that DNA only provides helpful information for some narrow situations?

DNA test results can tell you a lot about the first two to four generations of your ancestors assuming some of your relatives have also taken genealogical DNA tests. But a DNA test cannot really tell you anything about your "Ethnicity" other than telling you that you may have matching, living people in a certain list of countries. In some cases, these matches may surprise you or cast doubt on family traditions, but if your family came from England or Africa or the Pacific Islands, telling you that doesn't tell you about your ethnicity, it tells you that you have DNA matches with people from those areas of the world. The number of DNA matches I have from countries around the world makes me wonder more about the reliability of the tests that it does about the results.

If you take a DNA test out of curiosity then keep looking at the results as those results we continue to change. As for any genealogical value, the only way the tests will benefit you genealogically is if you take the time to enter your family tree information into a family tree associated with the DNA test.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

When does DNA stop helping me with my Genealogy?

I recently received an email notice from that said the following:

I clicked on the link to the blog post and got the following:
All this seemed pretty innocuous so I signed into to see what was new. Here was what caught my eye from the blog post.
We encourage you to view your DNA story again, as you may notice a new community waiting to be explored and shared with your family and other loved ones. 
With 15 million people tested, AncestryDNA has the largest consumer DNA network in the world. As new people continue to join our AncestryDNA network and science and technology continue to evolve, we expect that the number and granularity of communities offered will continue to increase. This latest update is just one of many that you can expect on your journey of personal discovery. 
When I logged into, I got an invitation to answer a survey. I decided, why not, I can find out what Ancestry is interested in. It turns out that the survey was quite disturbing. None of the questions dealt with genealogy or my interest in discovering my family history. The entire survey asked me about my feelings and attitudes. It was a survey I would expect from a sociologist or psychiatrist. When I finished the survey, here is what I got linked to:

There is nothing here about my family or genealogy or anything remotely related to my research. As I thought more about this, I began to wonder if this wasn't some sort of made over eugenics or the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

The rest of the advertisement only increased my concern. Here is another screenshot.

And there is another screenshot of the same advertisement:

Are we now in the business, as genealogists, in identifying racial traits? Here is another screenshot.

To add further to my concern, when I clicked on the "Personal Discoveries Project" link on, I got the following statement:

Apparently, wanted to make sure they got the first "survey" before they asked for my consent. Maybe all this concern comes from being a trial attorney for 39 years but I do not see how giving essentially an open license to use my DNA test helps me with my genealogical research. I think they have moved well beyond that focus. I suppose those of you out there that think this is all really good idea, but I for one, do not. When DNA testing gets into areas such as the ones evidenced from the ads, I think it stops being a genealogical tool and becomes something else.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Understanding MyHeritage's Smart Matching™ Technology

As I teach classes about, I find a lot of confusion about the differences between the website's Smart Matching™technology and the Record Matches. Once users understand the differences, they begin to see the tremendous power in both technologies. Here is a quote from Help Center that begins to explain this amazing technology.
Smart Matching™ is a specialized powerful genealogy technology that matches people that you have defined in your family tree with people in other family trees that members all over the world have created on
It works by comparing names, facts, and connections intelligently to the millions of family trees contributed by other users, to find out if your family tree intersects with any other trees and indicates matches. The sophisticated technology behind Smart Matches™ bridges across differences in spelling, phonetics, and relationships that may exist between the trees to offer a large quantity of highly accurate matches. 
With billions of family tree profiles on MyHeritage, you have an excellent chance of getting Smart Matches™ that reveal valuable new information about your family.
I usually explain this technology by pointing out that has over 102 million (yes, million), users worldwide and that the Smart Matching™technology allows you to connect with relative around the world that you could not imagine existed. All of these potential contacts are people who are interested in their genealogy and who live the countries, speak the language, and likely know about the records that exist in their country. Contacting these people is entirely optional but if your family comes from a place where obtaining records is difficult, such as some places in Eastern Europe or other countries on other continents, then contacting these Smart Matching™people may be the only practical way you have to do additional research.

It is important to understand that Smart Matching™is not a simple "name matching" technology. It is highly sophisticated and an indication of a match indicates that you are very likely related. I have talked to lots of people over the years I have been using and teaching the website that have found their relatives in other countries, made contact with them, and even traveled to meet them and learn more about their families.

If you come from a part of the world where there has been a lot of genealogical research, you might have a flood of potential relatives. For example, I have thousands and it may not be practical to think about contacting them all. In this case, it is important to evaluate these potential contacts to see if they might provide information about the specific parts of your family you are researching.

Of course, in some instances, the information in a relative's family tree may be identical to your own information. You may still wish to contact the potential relative for personal reasons. But if there are differences between your information and that in another family tree, you may wish to spend some time evaluating the differences and determining if there are documents that might indicate if you need to add to or change the information you have in your family tree. However, you need to be aware that MyHeritage's Record Matching technology is constantly searching every record in their collection and matching them to every individual in every family tree on the website at a very high level of accuracy. Where the information you see in another person's family tree might be most useful is if the information is about currently living people or those who have only recently died. Current information may be difficult to otherwise obtain.

Another major help in evaluating Smart Matching™matches is to use the results from DNA testing. If you obtain a DNA test from MyHeritage or upload the results from another company, you will be provided with DNA matches. If another user of the website shows up as a DNA match and a Smart Match, you have a greater degree of assurance that a relationship exists and that the information in the other person's family tree might be helpful.

You may wish to review the entire section of the Help Center about the Smart Matching™technology. Here is the link.

This Help Center section will provide information about how to reject Smart Matches that are not correct, ignore specific Smart Matches, and disable Smart Matches altogether if you wish to do that. is a complex website with fabulous resources, but where there is great benefit, there is usually an equal measure of effort required. You need to learn about the program. As will all current technology, the website will continue to become more useful and probably have more features in the future. Part of the challenge of working on our family's genealogy today is keeping up with all that new technology. But presently, you can take advantage of the helpful tools provided by MyHeritage to expand your family research in ways that were impossible just a few short years ago.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Obituaries and Copyright Issues

From a recent anonymous comment:
What kind of legal text can a person include in their own or their family member's obituary or its signed publication agreement to preclude the funeral home, newspaper, or any other entities from claiming copyright? Has anyone ever tried to copyleft their own or their family member's obituary under GNU GPL or Creative Commons CC0? There should be an ironclad way to put your own or close family member's obituary in the Public Domain in perpetuity, regardless of where the obituary is subsequently published and copied.
Of course, the content of all newspapers is covered by the current copyright laws in the United States of America and the copyright laws of all of the other countries of the world. Subsequent to the U.S.'s adoption of the Berne Convention Treaty. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 is a copyright act that became law in the United States on March 1, 1989, making the U.S. a party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

It is always a good idea to be aware of the existence of copyright protection. That said, when we get into the issue of the coverage of a very specific article, the law becomes vague and highly controversial. Obituaries fall into the vague and controversial category. I have never seen or heard of a copyright lawsuit concerning an obituary even after searching online. Most obituaries are written by a relative of the deceased so the copyright would be owned by the author or writer. But in many cases, when the obituary is submitted to a newspaper, the newspaper not only charges the relatives for printing the obituary but also has them agree to transfer the rights of the obituary to the newspaper's publisher.

There actually are entities that collect and publish obituaries about prominent people for profit but they are businesses and I would assume that they obtain the rights to publish their obituaries or write them themselves. In the case of an obituary about a relative that is published without an author's name, post-1989 every work published or created in the U.S. is automatically covered by the copyright law in the U.S. So I can't tell you what to do in any specific instance.

You can observe large collections of obituaries online. See United States, GenealogyBank Historical Newspaper Obituaries, 1815-2011 on for example. Also, bear in mind that in the United States, most works published before 1924 are now in the public domain. See Cornell University Library, Copyright Information Center, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States for a complete summary.

In short, I can't be much help and neither can anyone else. The copyright law in the United States is a hopeless mess and tracking down the copyright holder to a specific obituary would be a nightmare unless the obituary happens to make a specific note of the copyright holder.

Do you have a Research Plan?

Do you feel your genealogical research is like a random walk in the park? Perhaps, you should think through your objectives and come up with a research plan. There is always a measure of uncertainty in any research effort. But a research plan is not a fixed document, it evolves as the research progresses. What is important is to specifically identify the questions you wish to answer and then determine the documents you need to find to answer those questions.

During the past year or so, I have been involved in helping with some "brick wall" research projects. In most of those projects, I find that the target "brick wall" ancestor is really unconnected to the pedigree several generations forward in time. It is also often the case that there has been some research from an even more remote desired ancestor's descendants. For example, there may be a family tradition of an ancestor who fought in the United States Revolutionary War or who came to America on the Mayflower, however, this tradition is based on similar surnames or some other imaginary basis. In many cases, I have seen over the years, the would-be descendant lacks that one link connecting the ancestors to the target's descendants. A sound research plan can help to overcome the inaccuracies that may have crept in over the years.

When I am listening to someone tell me about a problem they have encountered in their research, I have to ask a lot of questions to get to the core of the issues that need to be resolved. When you are doing your own plan, you also need to ask yourself a series of questions particularly about the research that has already been done. A research plan starts with one or two very clearly defined and specific goals. Overcoming a research problem is a goal. The questions I ask clarifying the issues become the steps to solving the problems expressed by the goal.

A research plan needs to be based on a firm foundation of information supported by critically evaluated sources. Source supported genealogical research proceeds incrementally. It is all too common for those starting out on a research project to choose a goal of finding a blank spot on a pedigree or fan chart. Commonly, this is done without spending the time and effort to determine that all of the generational links back to a remote ancestor are adequately and reasonably supported. This lack of a generational link usually turns out to be the actual brick wall. To mix metaphors, you can't build a bridge in the air. You need to proceed step-by-step and make sure you have an adequate base for moving back one more generation.

The most important part of successful genealogical research is identifying an accurate chain of physical locations where events in your ancestors' lives actually occurred. If your ancestors moved or stayed in the same place, you must have documents that show their location over time. Valid historical documents are created at or near the place where an event occurred by someone who had an interest in the event or a duty to report the event. The main activities of genealogical research involve identifying these pertinent records, locating them, and then carefully extracting the information and recording it in an organized way.

Formulating a research plan depends entirely on what research has already been done. As you begin, you need to focus on the specific information that needs to be acquired and evaluate the types of records that would provide that information and would also be useful for answering the questions and achieving the ultimate goals. Here is where your level of research experience becomes crucial. If you are a relative novice to research, you may need to seek some help in identifying the types of records you need to examine. As your research skills increase, your ability to identify the types of records you need to search will also increase. For example, you could determine that an ancestor's will might provide information about the ancestor's family members and thereby establish a connection between the two generations. To proceed, you will need to know where to go to find a copy of the will if it exists at all. You will also need to know how to understand and read the will if one is found. It is usually a good idea for the research goals to include acknowledging the need to learn specific skills, such as reading old handwriting or understanding legal documents.

The research plan should include a list of all of the potential documents that may be of assistance in providing the information to answer the questions and achieve the goals. Part of preparing the plan includes identifying the location and availability of those documents. As you can probably guess, this step is not only crucial to making any progress but also the core of the whole process.

Obviously, the huge number of digitized records that have been made available online has revolutionized the way we conduct our research. But I am still finding people who come to me for help that have not done an adequate online search or who are even aware of the records that are easily available online. Commonly, I speak to people who have superficially searched on or but have never investigated or Each of these large online database websites has a detailed catalog or listing of the documents in their collection and each has unique documents not otherwise available online. For example,, a free website, has billions of records primarily organized by location (country) many of which are digitized and available on the website but I am continually talking to potential researchers who do not know that the website even has a catalog and I regularly encounter "experienced" genealogists that are completely unaware of the website.

As I mentioned previously, working with a research plan is an evolving activity. You may readily find the information you are seeking or you may spend years searching, but either way, it is important to keep modifying your plan or when resolved, choosing a new topic for research.

Here are two helpful links that illustrate a formal research plan in detail.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

A DNA Experience: Switched at Birth

It was bound to happen. I had my first direct experience with a genealogist who found out through a DNA test that he/she was switched at birth. I have no intention of providing any details of this situation because of the delicate nature of the discovery. The genealogist had been researching his/her family for many years without the slightest hint that there could have been a problem. Someone else took a DNA test and contacted the genealogist saying that they were related. The genealogist did not recognize any of the proffered surnames and assumed there was some kind of mistake but the party with the DNA test insisted there was a relationship. Finally, the genealogist got his/her own test and it showed that he/she was not related to anyone in the family he/she had been living with for a lifetime.

The genealogist came to me when he/she needed to start doing all of the research on the newly discovered family from scratch. I got her/him started on where she/he immediately got swamped with Record Matches; over 2000 in about an hour or so. This was what happened when he/she had to "start all over again."

As long as genealogists continue to view DNA tests through the filter of ethnicity they will continue to be surprised by those findings that are outside of what you would like to expect. Although finding out that you have been researching an unrelated family for years can happen with DNA testing, it can also happen with careful research.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The History of the Development of Genealogical DNA: Part Ten: The Advance of DNA Testing

Popular TV shows about crime scene investigation techniques, including DNA tests, pushed DNA into the public view. The first such show was named "Pilot" and aired on October 6, 2000, as the season premiere of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In 2003 NCIS began its 16 season run and added to the public awareness of DNA testing.

Quoting from Wikipedia: Genealogical DNA test,
The first company to provide direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing was the now defunct GeneTree. However, it did not offer multi-generational genealogy tests. In fall 2001, GeneTree sold its assets to Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) which originated in 1999. While in operation, SMGF provided free Y-Chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests to thousands. Later, GeneTree returned to genetic testing for genealogy in conjunction with the Sorenson parent company and eventually was part of the assets acquired in the buyout of SMGF in 2012. 
In 2000, Family Tree DNA, founded by Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, was the first company dedicated to direct-to-consumer testing for genealogy research. They initially offered eleven marker Y-Chromosome STR tests and HVR1 mitochondrial DNA tests. They originally tested in partnership with the University of Arizona. 
In 2007, 23andMe was the first company to offer a saliva-based direct-to-consumer genetic testing. It was also the first to implement using autosomal DNA for ancestry testing, which all other major companies now use.
It is not a coincidence that consumer genealogical DNA testing closely parallels the popularization of DNA testing portrayed on nationally popular TV shows. It took some time following the publicity of the double helix beginning in 1953, the Nobel Prize given to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins in 1962, and the sequencing of the genome from 1990 to 2003 for DNA to move from an esoteric scientific study to the mainstream of our existence as humans. As you can see from the very short summary above, genealogists were and are at the forefront of those incorporating DNA test results into their interest in inheritance and the identity of individuals.

In order for a DNA test to be useful for genealogical research, it needs to be coupled with an extensive, existing family tree program. The only way to match individuals is when they take related DNA tests and there is some mechanism for those taking the test to see the connections. The question still remains as to the level of technical details the genealogist needs to know to make substantiated and supported genealogical conclusions. To push on towards a resolution of this question, I need to take a short step back and write further about the development of forensic DNA testing and what is called the "DNA fingerprint."

The first paternity testing relied on blood typing between the child and the alleged parent. See Wikipedia: DNA paternity testing. Here is a short summary of the history from the same article.
The first form of any kind of parental testing was blood typing, or matching blood types between the child and alleged parent, which became available in the 1920s, after scientists recognized that blood types, which had been discovered in the early 1900s, were genetically inherited. Under this form of testing, the blood types of the child and parents are compared, and it can be determined whether there is any possibility of a parental link. For example, two O blood type parents can only produce a child with an O blood type, and two parents with a B blood type can produce a child with either a B or O blood type. This most often led to inconclusive results, as only 30% of the entire population can be excluded from being the possible parent under this form of testing. In the 1930s, a new form of blood testing, serological testing, which tests certain proteins in the blood, became available, with a 40% exclusion rate. 
In the 1960s, highly accurate genetic paternity testing became a possibility when HLA typing was developed, which compares the genetic fingerprints on white blood cells between the child and alleged parent. HLA tests could be done with 80% accuracy, but could not distinguish between close relatives. Genetic parental testing technology advanced further with the isolation of the first restriction enzyme in 1970. Highly accurate DNA parental testing became available in the 1980s with the development of RFLP. In the 1990s, PCR, developed in 1983, became the standard method for DNA parental testing. A simpler, faster, and more accurate method of testing than RFLP, it has an exclusion rate of 99.99% or higher.
This summary type of history omits the real issue involved in paternity testing: whether or not the courts would accept the paternity tests, at whatever level, as evidence in a paternity lawsuit. Again referring to the Wikipedia article above,
The DNA parentage test that follows strict chain of custody can generate legally admissible results that are used for child support, inheritance, social welfare benefits, immigration, or adoption purposes. To satisfy the chain-of-custody legal requirements, all tested parties have to be properly identified and their specimens collected by a third-party professional who is not related to any of the tested parties and has no interest in the outcome of the test. 
The quantum of evidence needed is clear and convincing evidence; that is, more evidence than an ordinary case in civil litigation, but much less than beyond a reasonable doubt required to convict a defendant in a criminal case. 
In recent years, immigration authorities in various countries, such as United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, and others may accept DNA parentage test results from immigration petitioners and beneficiaries in a family-based immigration case when primary documents, such as birth certificates, that prove biological relationship are missing or inadequate. 
The discovery of the blood groups by Karl Landsteiner in 1900 resulted in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1930. Here is a short explanation of the history from Wikipedia: Karl Landsteiner.
Karl Landsteiner, ForMemRS, (14 June 1868 – 26 June 1943) was an Austrian biologist, physician, and immunologist. He distinguished the main blood groups in 1900, having developed the modern system of classification of blood groups from his identification of the presence of agglutinins in the blood, and identified, with Alexander S. Wiener, the Rhesus factor, in 1937, thus enabling physicians to transfuse blood without endangering the patient's life. With Constantin Levaditi and Erwin Popper, he discovered the polio virus in 1909. He received the Aronson Prize in 1926. In 1930, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was posthumously awarded the Lasker Award in 1946, and has been described as the father of transfusion medicine.
For a detailed analysis of the history of paternity testing see the following.

Hartshorne, Susan Vipont, Proof of  Paternity: The History, University of Manchester School of Law, 2912.

Paternity lawsuits are seldom appealed and the evidentiary issues are similar to any type of evidence involving testimony by an expert witness.  In Arizona, for example, proof of paternity relies upon four presumptions. See Paternity Establishment by Presumption of Paternity quoting A.R.S. § 25-814.
In Arizona law, in general, a man is presumed to be the child’s father if:
  1. He was married to the mother during the 10 months immediately preceding the child’s birth. Or the child was born within 10 months after their marriage ended by death, annulment, divorce, or legal separation.
  2. Genetic testing affirms paternity by a 95% or more probability.
  3. They are unmarried and both sign the birth certificate.
  4. They are unmarried and both sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity.
Those presumptions are rebuttable with clear and convincing evidence, so they may be challenged. Additionally, if a court decree established another man’s paternity of the child, then the presumption of paternity is rebutted. A.R.S. § 25-814.
Genealogists, for the most part, ignore the technical, legal requirement for establishing a valid relationship and jump past all of the custodial and testing requirements and formulate their opinions based on the findings of unsubstantiated DNA tests that do not provide for verification.

Stay tuned for the next installment

See these previous posts:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:
Part Eight:
Part Nine:

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Ultimate Digital Preservation Guide, Part Three -- The Dawn of the Digital Image Age

Some of the first consumer-level digital cameras were the Casio QV-10 and the Apple QuickTake 100 and 150.

Casio QV-10 had a resolution of 320 x 240 (no Megapixels) compared to a currently available Canon EOS 5DS R with a 50.6 Megapixel sensor. The Casio QB-10 cost $750.00.
CC BY-SA 3.0,

Apple QuickTake 100 launched in 1994 with a .31 Megapixel sensor and could store only eight photos at a time.
By Picto - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Apple QuickTake 200

By The original uploader was Redjar at English Wikipedia. - Photograph taken by Jared C. Benedict on 06 March 2004., CC BY-SA 3.0,
Here is a link to some of the photos taken by these original digital cameras:

The very first portable digital camera sold was probably the Dycam Model 1 sold beginning in 1990. Digital cameras, such as those in smartphones, have become ubiquitous. On average, on Facebook alone approximately 350 million photos are uploaded every day.

Digitization involves making an image of a document or object with a digital camera. A digital camera is an electronic device that records and stores digital images. Here is a YouTube video that shows how a digital camera captures anHow a Digital Camera Works image.

How a Digital Camera Works

An image sensor is a solid-state device or the part of the camera that reacts to light and converts the light that enters the camera through the lens into an image.

The Science of Camera Sensors

So one step in digital preservation is the process of making a digital image of the document or physical item you wish to preserve. The digital image is then stored for use. But digital preservation goes well beyond the first step and includes steps before and after an image is captured.

Whether you organize digital images by organizing the documents before the images are made or organize the digital images after they are made depends on how you decide to proceed. In either case, you should rely on the computer to do the organizing. Let the computer do what it does best and you do the rest. Here is a video that will help you understand this principle.

What's in that Pile? Organization for the Disorganized Genealogist

Stay tuned for the next installment.

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part One:
Part Two: