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

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The History of the Development of Genealogical DNA: Part One, An Introduction

Charles Darwin (b. 1809, d. 1882
I think it is appropriate to begin this long and involved history of the development of genealogical DNA testing with an image showing Charles Darwin who is shown with male pattern baldness or androgenic alopecia, an inherited condition. See "Pattern hair loss." The rapidly increasing interest in genealogical DNA testing has become the basis for numerous news articles online as well as in the traditional paper print industry. No current genealogical conference is complete without its featured DNA expert teaching a class about X, Y, and mitochondrial DNA all illustrated with complex charts.

Within the past week of starting this series, I have heard two long narratives about the impact of genealogical DNA testing where the tests revealed new relatives, principally previously unknown parents. It seems clear that continued DNA testing will impact a huge number of individuals and families with results that will be disruptive and deeply disturbing. This by-product of genealogical DNA testing is largely ignored by the large online DNA testing companies who continually show how families have been emotionally reunited. Even prominent public individuals are being scrutinized because of their claims to a certain ancestry and even vilified for claiming a certain descendancy.

The benefits of genealogical DNA testing are less evident than the advertisements for the testing products might suggest. The beneficial effects attenuate with each generation back in time. The most prominently featured results claim to reveal your cultural ethnicity when it is clear from even a superficial examination, that the ethnicity reports, despite their sophisticated graphic representations, are vague at best and misleading in any detailed examination. As the testing procedures and analysis of the results become more sophisticated and detailed, there will be an increase in the overall utility of the tests. But we are presently in a time of rapid reevaluation and as the results change, most recipients of the test results will see their "ethnicity" evolve. Meanwhile, advances in the analysis of the test results will render the information about relationships in the first six ancestral generations highly useful to those who are investigating their ancestry in systematic and source-based ways.

The reality of the genealogical DNA testing is that the test results are particularly useful only when accompanied by a well-researched family tree. Therefore, the utility of the genealogical DNA tests for most of those who have taken a DNA test will revolve around the accuracy of their compiled online family tree. Without a well-researched family tree, a DNA test merely satisfies a curiosity.

One important question is how much of the detailed information about genetics is necessary to utilize DNA testing in a genealogical context? Genetics is like any other academic or professional pursuit; it has generated its own complex system of jargon. Jargon is a technical term that refers to a type of language that is used in a particular context and is only understood and accepted in a particular activity or group. These technical terms are used to communicate within the group and tend to exclude those who are not part of the group. As an attorney, I spent much of my initial legal studies learning the "jargon" of the legal profession. There is a common saying among attorneys, that becoming a lawyer or attorney consists mainly of learning how to sound like one. Likewise, becoming a DNA or genetics "expert" consists of learning the jargon and being able to articulate it in a way that impresses the non-initiate. Those who cannot spout the accepted jargon are immediately dismissed as novices or worse.

Of course, there are those who are involved directly in the activity of being a geneticist or a student of heredity and variations inherited characteristics. There are now a large number of major universities around the world that offer advanced degrees in molecular biology and genetics. The rankings of these universities correspond with their raking as global universities and they include universities such as Harvard University, University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other such institutions. See "Top 10 Global Universities for Molecular Biology, Genetics." In the academic world, recognition as an expert involves a complex relationship between published academic papers and important discoveries.

In contrast, very few of the DNA experts recognized by the genealogical community have any particular expertise or recognition in the academic community of either molecular biology or genetics. However, there are quite a few trained geneticists who have written about genealogical DNA testing. See the following:
This list could go on and on.

So what is the purpose of writing a detailed history of genealogical DNA testing? For the past few years, I have been studying and reading about genetics and its relationship to genealogy. As a trial attorney, I am accustomed to learning about new subjects, usually under pressure of an imminent trial. I think that my years of involvement in our legal system, more than 37 years of genealogical research, my background in linguistics, my years of study of genealogical DNA and the issues raised by genealogical DNA testing are mutually conducive to such an undertaking. What I think is important is that I break through the jargon and discuss the practical aspects of genealogical DNA testing. Does that make me an expert? Not likely. Experts in genealogy just as in every other profession and academic pursuit are, as I stated above, recognized by their publications and peer recognition. Despite my actual background and knowledge, I doubt that any of recognized "experts" will welcome me into their community. For you, the reader, I suggest that you read what I write and check my sources. As is my custom, I will aggregate everything I can find on a subject I write about and I will provide extensive links to every part of my writing.

Here we go. Stay tuned for the coming installments.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Gourmet Origins Website from MyHeritage

Six French pastry chefs discover their origins with MyHeritage DNA testing
Six French pastry chefs discover their origins with MyHeritage DNA testing.

Quoting from an email received today,
MyHeritage has invited six of the top French pastry and chocolate artisans to explore how their roots have influenced their culinary creations. Angelo Musa (Plaza Athénée, Paris), Nicolas Bacheyre (Un Dimanche à Paris), Patrick Roger, Carl Marletti, Nicolas Cloiseau (La Maison du Chocolat), and Laurent Duchêne embarked on an exciting journey with MyHeritage to discover their family origins.
These chefs are at the top of their respective fields, creating dishes that amaze and inspire. But where does their creativity come from? Is it possible that some of the creative inspiration for their masterpieces is rooted in their family history? That’s what we set out to discover. Through MyHeritage, the chefs learned fascinating new information about their ancestors, ethnic origins, and family stories. 
To discover this incredible story visit the Gourmet Origins website

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Next 5 Steps to Improving Your Family History Experience

If you are wondering about the first 5 steps, see "5 Steps to Improving Your Family History Experience." Here are the first 5 steps:
  • Focus on the places
  • Learn about the places
  • Identify the types of records that could have been created in the places associated with your ancestors' lives
  • Search the records
  • Keep records of what you find
The next 5 steps follow right along and help you to keep advancing and not get mired down or banging your head against a brick wall. Genealogy is like a pointillist painting that is comprised of details that create a beautiful picture if you get back far enough so the details become blurred together. Here is an example of a famous pointillist painting. 

So here I go with the next steps.

Step #6: Keep repeatedly evaluating your records

If you buy into the idea of a "Research Log," you may be working through genealogical records by using a checklist. You might think that "I looked at the 1880 U.S. Census and I didn't find anything, I don't need to look at it again." You would be wrong. You can keep looking back and you will continue to get new insights and pick up things you missed even after looking several times at the same records. As your perspective changes over time, you will see more and more information from the same records.

Step #7: Keep learning

As you gain genealogical experience, it is easy to look at the list of classes offered at a genealogical conference and dismiss most of them as too basic or assume that you know everything about a certain subject. I have been reading extensively about DNA testing for the past two years or so and just started another book on the subject. I am also learning about producing videos and spending time watching every instructional video I can find. I continually evaluate and explore ways to increase my accuracy and expand my knowledge of record sources around the world. You should never stop learning.

Step #8: Start teaching others what you have learned

The best way to learn something really well is to teach it to someone else. When you hear yourself explaining a genealogical principle, then the principle becomes part of you. It is also interesting that as you teach, you begin to evaluate the "correctness" of what you are teaching and often the questions and sometimes the challenges will reshape your understanding and methodology.

Step #9 Get to know the people you research

As you accumulate records and other documents pertaining to a particular family, you should remember to think of them as real people with real lives that had real problems and challenges. Some of my parents were pioneers in the areas where they lived. It is often easy to forget that they had specific challenges the accompanied living on the frontier. For example, my Great-Grandfather lost three children who died as infants or were young. Many families in similar circumstances lost many more children either in childbirth or as young children. Think about the times and the lives of these people you have as ancestors and relatives.

Step #10: Keep looking for improvements

This is different than just learning. You need to be innovative and try to do things more efficiently and accurately. As Emerson said, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." We need to think about new programs, new ways of recording our information and use the best possible technology we can afford. If you begin to feel burdened by your genealogical research, you probably need to change the way you are working.

It is convenient to have a set number of "steps" but the core idea here is to recognize historical reality. People lived out their lives at various physical locations on the face of the earth. If there are any records that survive that document their lives, those records will be associated with the places they lived. Identifying and finding those records is what genealogy is all about. But what you do with the information you accumulate determines whether your discoveries will be long-lasting or a flash in the pan. 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Obstacles to Access: Why can’t we see the documents?

One of the more frustrating things about genealogical research is finding that the records you need have some kind of restricted access. As genealogists, we need to honor some of those restrictions but we also have a responsibility to work to overcome many other restrictions. Here is my analysis of the types of restrictions we might encounter with comments about whether we accept these restrictions graciously or work to overcome them. I have not put this compilation into any particular order. Also, I am refraining from identifying any particular repository in conjunction with the classifications.

Obviously, many genealogical valuable records could be housed in any particular repository. So even if the repository freely gives access to its patrons, the researcher has to travel to the repository to see the records and arrive at a time when the repository is open and available for research. So access is limited to those who have both the time and the money to travel to the repository's location. This has been the case since antiquity. For those repositories that still have paper-based collections and have done nothing to make them more available, genealogists are essentially caught in a time-warp where we have to revert to traditional research methodologies.

A variation on this theme is that the repository restricts access to a certain class or category of researchers. This is a real issue with certain classes of documents. The restrictions can be based on religious, ethnic, or another type of qualification.

The solution to the first type of restriction is available if the repository would consider a digitization project. Of course, the repository may still impose restrictions on access to its digitized collections, but assuming those restrictions are most likely putting the records behind a paywall, the research can then access the digitized records from home. The second classification of restriction involves a more complex issue. A particular researcher may never be able to qualify as a "member" of the class of individuals allowed access to the records. But assuming the researcher is able to qualify, then research may be possible both in person and online. Here, a researcher could encourage or even offer to digitize the records in the repository, but assuming a restriction as to the qualifications or identity of the researcher, there is little that can be done unless there is a path to avoid or comply with the restrictions.

The next class of restrictions has to do with the arbitrary withholding of access or even putting access behind a substantial paywall. This is often an issue with otherwise public records. Bureaucracies tend to manufacture their own rules and restrict access to records for a variety of justifications. Primary among those justifications is the monetary benefit of the paywall. In the United States, we have a limited pathway to overcoming this type of restriction through Freedom of Information Acts both applying to the Federal government and state governments. See Reclaim the Records. Digitization of these records only helps if the digitized copies are not placed behind another paywall. Paying for records is a reality of genealogical research today and although we would like to have "free" records, subscriptions services and paywalls are a reality of everyday life.

One of the major obstacles raised to record access is the concept of "privacy." This is a topic that I have written about many times in the past. In reality, privacy laws are very limited in their effectiveness, but claiming privacy issues is now used as a catch-all way to restrict access when there are really political, social or religious reasons behind the restrictions. There are extreme applications of the privacy claim when courts "seal" adoption records and will not allow access even to those people who are adopted and need to know the information.

There are whole categories of records that are "confidential" both inside and outside of government agencies. These types of records do not usually impact genealogical research unless one of your ancestors was a spy or had access to privileged information.

As genealogists, we all face the issues of records that have some sort of restricted access. In some cases, we can work to "liberate" and preserve the records but this will always remain a major challenge of genealogical research.


You would think that tumbleweeds were iconic in the West but actually, pioneers did not have tumbleweeds. They are really Russian Thistle or Kali tragus. Here is a quote from Wikipedia about this particular species of tumbleweed.
Kali tragus is a species of flowering plant in the family Amaranthaceae. It is known by various common names such as prickly Russian thistle, windwitch, or common saltwort. It is widely known simply as tumbleweed because in many regions of the United States, it is the most common and most conspicuous species of tumbleweed. Informally, it also is known as "salsola", which was its generic name until fairly recently.
It first appeared in South Dakota in the 1870s when flaxseed from Russia turned out to be contaminated with Kali seeds. There are several species of ruderal weed. The whole subject of this type of plant turns out to be very complicated. But it is certain that early settlers did not have to deal with this type of tumbleweed. In the photo above the tumbleweeds are the darker colored brushy plants. When we were young, we made some amazing fires out of tumbleweeds.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

5 Steps to Improving Your Family History Experience

When you are working on researching your family history, you can easily get sidetracked by failing to focus on the fundamentals of historical research. Sometimes finding an obvious match for your ancestor will send you off on a tangent when it turns out that the obvious match was the wrong person. Other times, you might get mired in details and forget that not every record has been preserved and not every fact about a person's life can be verified. Here are some simple steps to get you back on the right track.

The First Step: Focus on the places

I don't know how many times this has to be said but it seems like I have to say this regularly when I am helping people with questions. The further back in time you research, the more crucial it becomes to make sure the places are accurately recorded and make sense. For example, my surname ancestral line is a relatively common name in England. But there are also a substantial number of Tanners who originally come from German-speaking parts of Switzerland and into what is not Germany. Some of my ancestral Tanners who came originally from England and some of the Tanners from Switzerland lived in the same county in Illinois. Without a careful consideration of who these people were and where their ancestors came from, there could have easily been some confusion.

If you look at your pedigree with a critical eye, you may find that there are places associated with births, marriages, and deaths when there are no source records to support the places listed. This is commonly the case when the family is supposed to have come from "Kentucky," or New England or "England" or "Germany." Most of the time, these vague locations lack substantiation. Each of your family lines effectively ends at the point where there are no specific sources showing the location of an event in the next generation of ancestors.

The Second Step: Learn about the places

Just a few minutes ago, before I started writing this post. I was asked to look at a family where the birthplace of an individual was recorded as West Virginia in 1854. This could obviously have been recorded by someone who thought that the place as it is today was the place that should be recorded. However, as I have written many times, the place of an event should be recorded as it was at the time of the event. In this case, if you don't happen to know, West Virginia was taken from Virginia during the U.S. Civil War in 1863. This fact can make all the difference in the world as to where the records of this family can be found.

This is why it is extremely important to learn about the history of each place mentioned in your research. The boundaries of cities, counties, states, and every other political subdivision have changed and may continue to change. Every one hundred years you go back in time means that there were major boundary changes. For example, Arizona became a state in 1912, just over 100 years ago. A hundred years before that, the land that is now called the State of Arizona was part of Mexico. Very few of the countries of Europe had the same boundaries in 1920 as they have today. In fact, some of the countries in existence then do not exist now.

While you are learning about political boundaries, take some time to learn about the history of the places where your ancestors lived. My experience in working with people over the years has graphically shown me that those who know the history of the area they are researching are much better prepared to do historical or genealogical research than those who don't.

The Third Step: Identify the types of records that could have been created in the places associated with your ancestors' lives

The basic activity of genealogists is learning about and then finding records. The pervasive use of computers with indexed records leads many researchers to believe that they can find their ancestors solely by searching for names. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still a lot of records still locked up on paper and when I start to do research on any one of my ancestral lines, I soon run out of digitized records and I am back to microfilm. It takes a little longer, but I am almost inevitably then back to paper. Researchers need to expend a significant effort in finding records to search.

The Fourth Step: Search the records

Here is where the real work begins. I spent part of the day I am writing this post working my way, page by page, through a microfilm roll. Fortunately, this roll was digitized but I have searched a lot of rolls of microfilm that wasn't digitized. Once you get back to the 1700s it is highly likely that you will be looking at paper at some point in your research. I should also mention all the books. Yes, books are being digitized, but major libraries with significant, genealogically valuable book collections that must be searched book by book. This is called "reading the shelves" and is eventually, the necessary adjunct to "real" research.

The Fifth Step: Keep records of what you find

It is very common that someone asks me for help in finding an elusive ancestor. What amazes me is that I do all of the basic research to begin actually looking for the ancestor and inevitably the person informs me that they had already done all of the research that I had just done over again. They then begin producing reams of research and documents that they had stacked up in some back room or basement. If you are going to do research, have the courtesy to keep track of what is and what is not done. You can call it a "Research Log" or whatever you want, but when you ask for help, at least have the courtesy of providing the helper with what you already know. Thanks in advance.

There are probably more steps, but I will stop here for now.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

SHOTBOX 3.0: Improvements on a great design
Lightboxes have long been a staple addition to the equipment used by commercial photographers, especially those who make images of products and food. SHOTBOX took the complex setup and use of the photographers' lightbox and turned it into the highest quality and most versatile light studio available. In addition, recognizing that genealogists are involved in document and artifact preservation, SHOTBOX introduced its product at RootsTech conferences. Many genealogists and family historians immediately saw how the SHOTBOX could help in both document preservation and for sharing images of historical artifacts. 

The newest version 3.0 of the SHOTBOX adds several helpful features:
  • A BlackTop option
  • Improved glare and reflection control
  • Updated LED technology to current industry advancements
  • Optimized input configuration for upcoming portable power accessories
I have used my SHOTBOX for everything from photographing minerals to documents. The main benefit is that it eliminates "hot spots" from overhead lights or a flash. The easiest camera to use is a smartphone camera but it is possible to use DSLR cameras and most point-and-shoot cameras. Obviously, the use of a lightbox such as the SHOTBOX extends well beyond document preservation. Here are some of the uses suggested by the SHOTBOX website.
The website has a number of photos that demonstrate the expansive uses of the SHOTBOX.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Let's Get Outside with
Finding a grave is simplified when you use As you take photographs with your tablet or smartphone connected to the Internet, the BillionGraves App automatically uploads the images to their website. You can then transcribe the monument inscriptions and the information is automatically put on the map showing the exact location of the grave. Here is an example of the cemetery map from Provo, Utah.

I looked for my relative, Myron Tanner. Here is a photo of his gravemarker.

Here is the map to his gravemarker.

Here is a closer view of the grave site.

The key here is that the website records the geographic coordinates (GPS) of the grave location making finding the grave much easier than it would otherwise be.  For another example, here are all of the grave locations you would have to search through without very specific directions.

You might want to try using BillionGraves.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #2 Working with Sources on

Exploring Genealogy Series #2 Working with Sources on

This is a new series of videos called Exploring Genealogy. This segment is #2 in the series. These videos are being posted on both my Rejoice and be exceeding glad... blog and on Genealogy's Star. I have been working for a couple of months renewing my video skills. I assure you they will improve over time. I have found that I can produce a video faster, in some cases, than I can write a blog post. This is certainly true of this video about sources on

These videos are being posted on my own YouTube Channel which hasn't been used for years. I will be updating the Channel as I go along and adding more videos. Please take a second to click on the subscribe button.

Reclaim the Records Files the Biggest Lawsuit Ever

Newsletter from
If you are a genealogist and you are unfamiliar with Reclaim the Records, you should be not only familiar with them, but actively supporting them. Record access is one of the major obstacles to genealogical research. Granted, some records, such as the 1890 U.S. Federal Census have been lost through bungling and mismanagement. Other records have been lost through natural disasters and poor conservation practices. But here in the United States, many valuable genealogical records are merely unavailable to genealogical researchers either because they have been hidden behind a paywall or, what is worse, a bureaucratic wall. These obstacles affect all of us, whether we are searching out our ancestors or not.

Recognizing this problem, many years ago, legislatures across the U.S. began passing Freedom of Information Acts (FOI). The Federal Government and all the states each have their own version of this type of law. See Wikipedia: Freedom of Information in the United States.

Now we get to the non-profit corporation called Reclaim The Records. This small group of lawyers and genealogists have been using the FOIs to "liberate" records for some time now. They have successfully liberated millions of records so far and, as shown above, they are now filing a major lawsuit that could have repercussions throughout the entire country. You need to read the entire newsletter to appreciate what is happening. But here is a short quote from the newsletter to get you started:
We just filed a new lawsuit, the biggest, baddest Freedom of Information lawsuit that we've ever filed. It's a milestone case, not only for our organization, but also for how genealogists, historians, and researchers as a community deal with government agencies who routinely withhold historical records from the public, and who pass capricious and irrational restrictions on public access. 
Yesterday afternoon, in the Supreme Court of New York, New York County, we filed an Article 78 Petition against the following agencies and people:
  • The New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene
  • The New York City Bureau of Vital Statistics
  • The New York City Board of Health
  • Oxiris Barbot in her official capacity as New York City Commissioner of Health
  • Gretchen Van Wye in her official capacity as New York City Registrar
  • And last but certainly not least, Steven P. Schwartz in his official capacity as former New York City Registrar
This Petition challenges not only the Department of Health's refusal to disclose records to us based on New York's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), but it also challenges the Department of Health's restrictive regulations themselves. Additionally, this is the first time that our organization has gone after actual vital record certificates, as opposed to a records index of some sort.
I am sure you will want to follow the progress of this particular lawsuit. Here is a link to the petition.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

3rd Annual Conference of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage

You are cordially invited to the 3rd Annual Conference of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage. The theme of the Conference is 1619: Their Legacy Live On; the 400-year Commemoration of the First Documented Arrival of Africans in British Colonial America. The Conference will be held at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey on June 7-8, 2019. The full conference with Dinner is $95.00 with a discount for members. Click on the link above to the website for further information.

Quoting from the website:
The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. “The triangular trade system was so named because of the route it took.  The ships embarked from European ports, and stopped in Africa to gather captives.  After this, they set out for the “New World” (North America, South America, and the Caribbean) to deliver their kidnapped victims, and then returned to the point of origin. The transport conditions were horrendous and millions of enslaved people died on these voyages.  
Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP) is a lineage society dedicated to the memory of our freed and enslaved ancestors and to the education and historic preservation of the artifacts and landmarks of slavery in the United States of America and its economic, psychological, and cultural impact on today’s society. Lest we forget.  SDUSMP is a non-profit, charitable 501(c)3 organization. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Quick Links to Learning about

I am still finding a certain lack of appreciation and understanding concerning I guess I need to do another video on the subject of the program. But until I do, here is a list of the current videos available. If you run out of these, just wait a while and I will do another one or two or three. There is a section in the menu bar about Video entitled Making the Most of MyHeritage com Video entitled Part One Another Video on MyHeritage MyHeritage Part Two MyHeritage Part Three Using Sources with MyHeritage

Some of these are a little dated, but they help to understand how the program works. Here are some more. What is MyHeritage RootsTech 2019 talk by MyHeritage Founder & CEO Gilad Japhet

Here is another link to 50 more videos about MyHeritage

When you run out of these, go to the MyHeritage YouTube Channel and you will find some more. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Dangers of Using GEDCOM

GEDCOM was last updated back in 1999 now twenty years ago. However, the current version in common use dates from 1996. Essentially it was a program designed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for exchanging genealogical data between different genealogical software programs. Here is a description of the program from Wikipedia: GEDCOM:
A GEDCOM file is plain text (usually either ANSEL or ASCII) containing genealogical information about individuals, and metadata linking these records together. Most genealogy software supports importing from and exporting to GEDCOM format. However, some genealogy software programs incorporate the use of proprietary extensions to the format, which are not always recognized by other genealogy programs, such as the GEDCOM 5.5 EL (Extended Locations) specification.
Even back in the time when GEDCOM was commonly used to transfer genealogical data between two programs, the process produced an "error" file with information that could not be copied. Over time, the information that is not transferred has grown as programs implement features that are not supported by the old GEDCOM standard. I have discussed the use of GEDCOM or mentioned the problems associated with using GEDCOM to transfer genealogical data in at least 20 previous blog posts.

Let's suppose that you are using a program on your device that stores genealogical data. For whatever reason, you do not trust the "internet" or "cloud" to store your data so you eschew the use of any online programs such as the Family Tree,, or Let's further suppose that you have now entered a huge corpus of information in your program. For some reason, you now start to worry about what might happen to all your data if your computer crashes or your program is discontinued. You also decide that you should "share" all your work with your family. What do you do to share your information? How do you back up your data?

Let's further suppose that you contact your family and offer them copies of your data files. You are surprised to find out that none of them are using the program where all of your data is stored. In fact, none of them have even heard of the program. When you decided to buy all of them a copy of the program you find out that the program will not work on any of their devices. So, you decide to export all your data in a GEDCOM file which you share with all of your family members. None of your family members know what to do with the file.

This hypothetical example could go on but in the end, no matter how the example is written, the results are the same: the information on your computer is lost. Even if you were successful in having someone in your family accept the information in GEDCOM format, it is very likely that much of the value of the information would be lost. For example, GEDCOM does not parse sources. What this means that if you use a program that allows you to enter a source for your information, GEDCOM may lose the information or end up putting the source into one long line of text. The program creating a GEDCOM file and the program receiving the GEDCOM file have to match the way the data is coded by the GEDCOM standard. As the description states above, "However, some genealogy software programs incorporate the use of proprietary extensions to the format, which are not always recognized by other genealogy programs." This was always the case with using GEDCOM to transfer genealogical information. If that was true twenty years ago, it is even more of a problem today.

Unfortunately, the problem of transferring accurate data between programs is still a challenge today. There is still no common standard for transferring data from one program to another except for some residual support of using GEDCOM. If you don't mind losing a significant part of your data, GEDCOM is still in use and still being promoted as a "solution" for exchanging data. However, some significant progress is being made. For example, and have developed a synchronization program that will allow the exchange of all of the information of at least 8 generations of the data in either program. However, this process is presently limited to those who have FamilySearch Accounts and are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is also a limited way to exchange data between and also limited to members of the Church. Perhaps these initial efforts will expand and allow other programs to share information. There are also two desktop programs that have the ability to exchange source information with online programs: and Ancestral Quest (

If you are starting out with your genealogical research, you may wish to consider the ability of the program you choose to use based on the program's ability to transfer data to other programs.

RootsTech 2019 Highhights Video

RootsTech 2019 Saturday Day in Review: Connecting Through Music and Culture

I was glad to be back at RootsTech 2019 this year and will look forward to attending next year. The above is just the first in a long series of videos from the Conference. If you didn't have the opportunity to attend, plan to come next year. We will be there with The Family History Guide and hopefully, FamilySearch.

Friday, April 12, 2019

DNA, Genealogy, and Political Entities

Millions of people around the world have now taken a genealogically sponsored DNA test. The most recognized results of these tests is an Ethnicity Estimate. If you were one of those early adapters whose test results came to you a few years ago, you have probably seen your original Ethnicity Estimate change a number of times. Here is a copy of my first Ethnicity Estimate that I published in May of 2017.

Here is the latest estimate from the same test. 

There is really no way to compare the two results. The reason for this is that the "ethnicity" from these reports is defined as a politically established country. Here is a graph showing the results of a study published by back in 2016 showing the UK's ethnicity dating back from 500 years. See "The British Are Less British Than We Think."

So how do you separate my British/Scandinavian ethnicity from my Scandinavian (Norway, Sweden) ethnicity? Also, all of my research shows that the only ancestral lines that I have from Scandinavia are from Denmark and what happened to my Iberian ancestors?

Ethnicity is not defined by political boundaries. Governments do not determine ethnicity or genetics. Not yet anyway. The most common definition of "ethnicity" is the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. What is there about DNA testing that has anything to do with social, national, or cultural traditions? There is little agreement anywhere online between "race" and "ethnicity." 

One thing missing from these ethnicity reports is a time frame. For example, Ireland is listed as a place for my ethnicity. Here is one problem with that evaluation. What is Irish? If we look at a timeline of "Irish" history we can see some of the following dates:
  • AD 1 to 500 AD: Romans occupied England and Christianity was introduced into Ireland, i.e. St. Patrick came to Ireland. 
  • Around 700 AD the Vikings began to raid Ireland and by 837 the Vikings (whoever they were) began to establish long-term settlements beginning in 841.
  • Around 900 to 911, the Irish and the Norse went to Cumberland, Lancashire, and Cheshire in England.
  • 923 the Vikings founded Limerick.
  • 1155 Henry II of England got permission from the Pope to invade Ireland and England conquered Ireland by about 1177.
  • 1315 Edward Bruce of Scotland became King of Ireland.
  • 1366 Richard II of England became King over Ireland.
  • 1541 Henry VIII was made King of Ireland by the Irish Parliament.
  • 1610 Settlers from England and Scotland began to arrive in Ulster, Ireland. 
  • 1801 the Union of Great Britain and Ireland came into law.
  • 1923 the Irish Free State was admitted to the League of Nations
  • 1948 the Republic of Ireland Act created the Republic.
So, if I am 12% Irish and Scotland ethnicity, what does that mean? What do Ireland and Scotland have in common that makes them comparable ethnicities? 

How many different ethnicities are there in Northwestern Europe? Am I Danish, Dutch, German, or what?

Finally, what conceivable help is this changing ethnicity estimate to my genealogical research?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Step-by-Step Approach to Using Genealogical Cluster Research: Step Five

How do you identify your ancestors' clusters?

Genealogical clusters can be identified and used to expand your research by considering all of the possible relationships that your ancestors may have had with those who lived around them or with whom they associated. Clusters can be geographically determined or based on cultural, occupational, religious, social, or any other type of association. The illustration above refers to a study identifying genetic clusters. See "Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America."

Here is a rather simple illustration of how clusters can be identified from a U.S. Federal Census schedule. If I look at the Census for 1900 in a small community in Arizona where some of my relatives and ancestors lived, I find that my Great-grandfather appears on the following schedule:
If you were simply collecting census records as additional sources, you would add this particular page to your list of sources and move on. But what else can this record tell us about the family that we might not know? What would help us find the entire family and begin to understand how and where they lived? Of course, this is an illustration taken from one record for this family. In the Family Tree my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, has 122 sources listed. But I am using this one record to illustrate how we view these records to understand the cluster relationships that help us define an individual and a family and therefore facilitate finding even more information.

This page of the 1900 Census record lists the "State" as "Arizona." Hmm. Arizona did not become a state until 1912 so we are dealing with a standard form that may mislead someone who is not aware of the background history. This is one of the fundamental issues with beginning jurisdictional analysis. What Arizona Territorial records would have been kept in 1900 and where would those records have been kept?

What else do we see on this record? Here are some of the things this record tells us:
  • The record is from the St. Joseph Precinct in Navajo County. That suggests some places (jurisdictions) where the records may have been kept. 
  • The record was dated 30 June 1900. This may or may not be the date when the information was obtained since that is likely the "official" census date. 
  • The surnames of the families listed on this page include McLaws, Hansen, Tanner, Richards, Tanner, and Tanner. How are these people related, if they are?
  • Looking at the birthplaces listed, we see the following countries or states Arizona, Utah, England, Denmark, Scotland, Canada, Kentucky, California, 
We could go on. One of the people listed is a Naturalized Citizen. Many of the children are in school. Most of the men are listed as farmers. But what is not so obvious is that they are all neighbors. These people all knew each other. 

How were the three Tanner families related? This brings up a basic issue of cluster research. We have three Tanner families. The heads of the households are:
  • Martin Tanner Jr. age 22
  • Henry M. Tanner age 47
  • Emma E. Tanner age 37
Almost all of the families listed have recent immigrant ancestors, i.e. parents who were born outside of the United States. Here is where we have to go beyond the record and beyond the jurisdictional analysis. Further research shows that the head of household named "Martin Tanner Jr." is Martin Ray Tanner, the first son of Henry Martin Tanner and his wife Eliza Ellen Parkinson. The head of household named, Emma E. Tanner is Emma Ellen Stapely Tanner, the second plural wife of Henry Martin Tanner. So, rather than two families of Tanners, all three of those named are actually part of the same family. How many of the other families in the St. Joseph Precint were involved in plural marriages? How did all these families relate to one another? Can we use that relationship to find out more information about the families? These are some of the questions that we can begin asking. 

We now have the beginnings of a basis for investigating the "cluster" of all of the families that share a common condition. Not to keep anyone in suspense, they are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and even though the practice of polygamy had been discontinued before 1900, there were still families that were part of the recently terminated practice. This subject opens up a huge opportunity for understanding these family organizations and further suggests a huge number of possible records that exist that might be overlooked without identifying a common practice, a common religion, and a common situation in a small town in Arizona Territory. 

The practice of polygamy or plural marriage was discontinued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints beginning in 1889. See the following for further information. 
There is still a lot more to say about cluster research. Stay tuned. 

Remember: There is no Step Two in this series. Here are the previous posts.

Step One:
Step Two: missing but shows up as Step One
Step Three:
Step Four:

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

New Graphic Profile Pages from Ancestry introduced a new graphically oriented profile page at a telephone conference today, April 9, 2019.

The new profile becomes an active part in improving the Ancestry user experience. The new profile also increases the user's ability to manage their family trees and other uploaded assets. A number of other improvements include better management of communications through the messaging system of the website. The DNA matches are also expanded to more easily view the information available about each of the matching people.

To view and explore the new beta version of the profile pages, you can click on the link to your old profile by clicking on your name in the upper right-hand corner of the startup screen. There is a button allowing you to view the beta version.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

A DNA Test may not automatically overcome a Brick Wall situation

The term "brick wall" as used in the genealogical sense refers to an end-of-line situation where the next generation ancestor or even some other relative cannot be easily found. Of course, this could be the researcher's parent or parents but in most cases, it is one or more of a more distant ancestor or relative. As a side note, I think the term is very inappropriate as it implies that some external force is preventing you from finding a particular person. There is a huge body of writings and videos on the subject of overcoming genealogical brick walls, See "The Ultimate Genealogical Brick Wall Buster" for example.

Lately, with the increased interest in genealogical DNA testing, there are numerous examples of articles, advertisements, and other media mentions about finding the "long lost ancestor." Most of these deal with reunions between members of close biological families, i.e. finding parents or siblings. However, there is an undercurrent of articles about solving complex genealogical mysteries, i.e. brick walls, using DNA tests.

First of all, DNA testing is not absolute proof of a relationship between two individuals. When the individuals tested are extremely closely related, such as a parent and a child, the results of a DNA test do approach certainty but with each generation of removal from the test subject, the uncertainty of the accuracy of the test decreases. The use of DNA tests to establish paternity date back to 1988. Before that, blood tests were used that could only suggest a relationship or rule out one altogether. The first use of DNA testing in a criminal case occurred back in 1986 in England. After many law cases over the succeeding years, DNA testing in criminal cases has become routine. The first case that allowed DNA to be used for evidence was a New York criminal case, People v. Wesley, 140 Misc.2d 306 (1988). However, the case was appealed and finally, the use of DNA testing upheld in the New York Court of Appeals, see People v. Wesley, 83 N.Y. 2d 417 (1994). By that time, I had been practicing law for about 19 years.

During the years following that first lawsuit, the use of DNA testing for evidentiary purposes expanded slowly in the legal community. Almost every case where it was attempted to be used and admitted by the courts ended up in an appeal. It was years before DNA testing was allowed routinely, but it is still objected to based on the method of collection and other evidentiary custodial grounds.

I think there is way too much science being talked about in conjunction with genealogical DNA testing and not nearly enough about the methodology and the accuracy of the particular procedures used in taking the tests. Automatically assuming that the results of any particular DNA test are accurate is not only bad science it is poor genealogical methodology. Before you start to get upset, think about how the tests are administered. The procedures and the possibility of contamination are left entirely up to people with absolutely no experience in conducting such a test: the people who buy the kit from the supplier and sometimes off of a store shelf.

If any of the multitudes of DNA tests out there were used in a law case where I was representing a party, I would have little or no trouble in getting the test disqualified.

Then how do law enforcement agencies use a DNA test to solve cold cases? They don't they use the DNA test to suggest suspects and then obtain a properly conducted DNA test to establish the evidence that is taken to court. The argument is whether or not the DNA information from a third party supplier such as one of the genealogical DNA testing companies can be used to establish probable cause for arrest and the acquisition of DNA from a suspect. The case is not proved until the suspect's DNA matches some DNA obtained from the crime scene.

What does this have to with genealogy? First of all, as I have already mentioned, the DNA tests are very popular and are being advertised as a solution to genealogical mysteries, i.e. brick walls. One basic part of the DNA testing that should be emphasized is that they are a mere novelty without careful genealogical research in a family tree that is supported by the results from the DNA tests. For example, it is not very helpful to find out that someone is your 3rd or 4th cousin various times removed unless there is some way to figure out how you are related. In this regard, MyHeritage's The Theory of Family Relativity is a giant leap forward in integrating DNA tests with family tree information and sources. But unless you are already familiar with your own ancestry and have a well-sourced family tree on the website, you will still be unable to analyze and use the information.

Every generation back in time more than doubles the number of potential ancestors you have due to people with multiple marriages and etc. Stories of DNA solving difficult relationship issues with relatively remote ancestral relationships are almost always the product of extensive paper research to identify the people who might be candidates for a match to show a researched relationship to a common ancestor.

So taking a DNA test without the support of a family tree, may or may not help you find a connection in your first two or three generations. But without a sourced family tree once you get back past three or four generations, a DNA test is only useful after intensive genealogical research and an understanding of how the DNA may help to find the common ancestor.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

When will we have handwriting recognition?

Automated, computer based, handwriting recognition is the dream of every genealogist. The challenge of handwriting recognition goes way beyond the now common Optical Character Recognition software that can recognize typed or typeset text, There are no standard sets of characters to work from; each person's handwriting is distinct and personal. It is true that the letters adhere to an underlying pattern, but the variations are overwhelmingly complex. Fortunately, there are a lot of developers around the world that are working on the problem.

One of the leaders in handwriting recognition development is the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Lab, on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
 To see a good overview of the Lab's activities, including their efforts to develop handwriting recognition, see the slides from their RootsTech 2019 presentation.

Progress in this area parallels the increased memory and processing capacity of computers as well as the increased availability of high quality digitized documents.

There are two facets to the present investigations into handwriting recognition: those efforts that are aimed at the recognition of handwritten notes on tablets and those that attempt to recognize paper-based handwriting. Most of the efforts are aimed at present commercial applications and not on reading the handwriting in old historical documents. There are thousands of academic articles online on the subject.

After watching this development for years, I have seen incremental increases in both recognition and accuracy, but the dream of having all of the old handwriten documents transformed into text still appears in the distant future.