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

Monday, August 31, 2020

When is a Brick Wall not a Brick Wall?


As I have written and presented previously, the concept of a "brick wall" in genealogical research is not very helpful. Here is a video I did a couple of years ago about how to resolve the problem. 

But there is always more that can be said on this subject. In this post, I am going to try to identify the type of situations that cannot be classified as "brick walls" for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, there is no consistent and universally accepted definition for what is and what is not a brick wall. But from having fielded a lot of questions about brick walls, I have formed an opinion about what does and what does not fall into that category. The reason for doing this is to help you make progress on those lines that you have wrongly classified as brick walls.

The main reason I don't feel that using the term "brick wall" to describe a situation where genealogical research has become difficult is that there is a confusion between difficult research situations and those that are impossible. We all have to start at the same zero-level of experience in acquiring research skills and since the level of the perceived difficulty of any particular research situation is dependent on the background and experience of the researcher, the definition of what constitutes a brick wall for any given researcher changes over time as skills are acquired. For example, I might have a high skill level in doing genealogical research in the English language but close to a zero skill level in a language such as Chinese. Ultimately, progress is Chinese genealogical research depends on being able to understand and read the language. If I had a Chinese ancestor, that would be my brick wall but if I learned how to read Chinese and learned about Chinese records, I might find that my initial "brick wall" was rather easily overcome. 

My Chinese language example is also an example of why you might want to find some help from other genealogists with the particular skills that prevent you from making progress with your research. So a lack of experience or knowledge on the part of the researcher cannot be called a brick wall. The researcher can choose whether or not they want to make the effort to learn what it is they need to know to make progress on a particular ancestral line, including learning a new language or script. 

One thing I have noticed from all the questions about brick walls is that the vast majority of the issues involve ancestors back in or before the 18th Century. There is a direct relationship between researching back in time and the increasing difficulty in finding records especially for people who were neither rich nor famous. Characterizing research before 1700 as a "brick wall" is neither realistic nor productive. Research usually requires learning new scripts and even a new language. At the same time, the records that do exist are more difficult to access and search and the records often require page by page and line by line review. The fact that you cannot find an individual in this increasingly difficult time period may simply mean that there are no records for that individual. If you need a good example of the difficulty, look at the following book.

Anderson, Robert Charles. 2015. The great migration directory: immigrants to New England, 1620-1640 : a concise compendium.

From time to time, people come to me with questions about an ancestor or relative that lived well within the 19th or 20th Century and preface their questions with the comment that this person is a brick wall. If you watch my video above, you will hear me say something about the fact that almost all these issues end up being related to looking in the wrong place. On the other hand, people do disappear without a trace. Some to escape from a bad situation others simply because during the 1800s especially, life was difficult and people died in places where their bodies were never found. Compound this with the fact that some people changed their names and never looked back along with spotty record-keeping and you have a lot of reasons why finding a particular person may never be resolved. We should not consider these people to be a brick wall case until we have done as much research as possible for all the related people we can find.

By the way, a missing record for a birth, marriage, or death is never a brick wall. There are plenty of reasons why one vital record may not be found. You need to remember Rule Two of the Basic Rules of Genealogy: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive. See A New Rule of Genealogy Discovered: Number Thirteen.

If you feel like you simply cannot find anything about a particular person or family, just take a deep breath and take a few generations back on that family line and work back up towards the brick wall person. I have ancestors I have been researching for over thirty years and I still do not consider them to be a brick wall because I still think there are sources of information I have not yet found. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

FamilySearch partners with Ontario Ancestors to digitize historic books


A Message from Society President Steve Fulton, UE

Quoting from an announcement made on 28 August 2020:

Ontario Ancestors and FamilySearch International announced their new book scanning partnership. Under the agreement, FamilySearch will provide specialized book scanning services and support volunteers in exchange for access to Ontario Ancestors’ extensive library of historical and genealogical books. Digitized documents will be publicly available on both websites. Digitization is scheduled to begin by the end of 2020, depending on pandemic restrictions. 

This agreement is a first for a genealogical society in Canada. President Steve Fulton UE commented that “this agreement has no direct cost to us, but the benefits to the society are immeasurable.” He also went on to say that this agreement is a “direct result of the many conversations that we have had with a number of partners, and [it] is a key to delivering on the society’s goal of building up its digital presence by utilizing strong partnerships.” 

Dennis Meldrum, FamilySearch manager of book scanning partnerships, says Ontario Ancestors has one of the largest collections of family history and genealogy books in Canada. “It will be a privilege to work with Ontario Ancestors to digitize and share their impressive collection of books not under copyright,” said Meldrum.

This is the second time the two organizations have partnered on records preservation and access. The first digitization project was the Vernon Directories that began in 2019 (Search the Ontario Vernon Directories for fun discoveries about your ancestors). currently has over 490,000 genealogically significant digital books online which are free to the registered users of the website. See the following:


Friday, August 28, 2020

Malls, Conventions, the Internet, Webinars, Classes, Genealogy, and a Pandemic


What do malls, conventions, the internet, webinars, classes, genealogy, and a pandemic have in common? Recently, a major department store closed at a nearby mall. These stores are called "anchor tenants." The idea of a mall is that all the tenants benefit economically from their association with each other. The mall becomes a "target destination." Almost immediately after the store closed, they began demolition. Within a very short time, the store structure disappeared and a "new" anchor store is planned however this repurposed mall includes offices, apartments, condominiums, and a huge parking structure. Meanwhile, at another nearby mall two of the three main anchor store locations sit empty. News accounts for the past few years have chronicled the demise of the American shopping mall. See "The Death of the American Shopping Mall Is Coming Sooner Than You Think." 

The COVID-19 pandemic that began near the end of 2019 is hastening the end of the mall culture but the decline started long before the pandemic. Think of a mall as a distribution point for goods and services. As I noted, the concentration of stores in one connected location was supposed to attract people (customers) so that stores that would not have otherwise survived as stand-alone businesses would benefit. It is all too easy to blame the downfall of the malls on internet commerce, primarily on But Amazon is not the cause of the downfall of malls, it is really a product of the economic and cultural forces that are affecting all of the entities named in the title to this post. 

The pandemic has accelerated the shift from a concentrated and focused distribution system to a dispersed system tied together by electronic lines of communication. To illustrate, I recently purchased a computer. However, the only store in my area that sold that particular computer is closed because of the pandemic. In addition, that store does not "carry" the model I wanted to order but I could order the computer through the store. So, I opted to order the product directly from the manufacturer (not Amazon). If this chain of decision making events occurs over and over again, then there is no need for me to get in my car, drive to a mall, walk around to find the computer store that sells this particular computer, and order it through the store which will then require me to return to the store to pick it up. A hybrid system would allow me to order the product online and pick it up at the store which would still require one trip to the store. Either way, I get the exact same product in about the same time but in my case, I do not have a trip to the store which, by the way, is about an hour or more away from my home. 

Now, what is a convention? It is essentially a "mall" for information and entertainment. The idea of a convention is to animate sales or promote something through personal interaction. Just like a mall, the convention promotes an "anchor presenter" usually a celebrity known by the target group of people invited to attend. The convention aggregates and concentrates attention to the product or services being promoted or sold. Just like a mall, I have to travel to the convention (sometimes at my own expense and sometimes sent by my employer) where I am expected to spend time shopping for new ideas or products. Are conventions immune to the forces that are shifting to dispersed systems of distribution? 

Conventions depend primarily on economies of scale. The larger the attendance (malls during the holiday season) the more successful the entire operation will be. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of genealogically oriented conventions (with a variety of names such as expos or conferences) disappear. One of the largest such disappearance was the "Who Do You Think You Are? Conference held in England and billed as "The world’s largest family history show." Other smaller regional conventions (conferences etc.) have also disappeared. 

In 2019-2020, the worldwide pandemic resulted in the cancellation of several other long-standing genealogical conventions. Some of the remaining ones have tried to transition to a virtual or online conference format. Does that sound familiar? A move from a concentrated and focused distribution system to a dispersed system tied together by electronic lines of communication. Will that transition be successful? I am guessing that to the extent that the "virtual conference" is truly virtual and not merely an electronic facsimile of a live conference, the move to virtual may be successful. Unfortunately, what I see is that those planning "virtual" events are trying to duplicate the live attended conference experience. So now we come to webinars and online classes. Even though genealogy is a rather restricted area of interest, on any given day, you could probably listen to or watch dozens of online genealogical presentations. So how will those traditional live conference promoters survive in that preexisting background of well-produced webinars and classes? Why would I pay to attend a 3 or 4-day online conference when I can watch good quality presentations from, in many cases, well-known genealogical community celebrities for free? How much will I spend to sit in front of my computer for 2, 3, or 4 days? Will I buy from vendors in a virtual "Exhibit Floor?"

Isn't the potential conference attendee now in the same position as I was in deciding to purchase a computer directly from the manufacturer online to be delivered to my house? Of course, the difference being that there are not a host of computer manufacturers out there giving away exactly the same computer for free like there is for the genealogy organization or company trying to sell an online virtual conference with a host of online presenters giving webinars and classes for free. How will those who are now trying to transition to virtual conferences survive the cataclysmic shift to dispersed distribution?

I have a lot of ideas about how and why some of the ways genealogy is presented will evolve in the virtual environment, but that will have to be a topic for another post. But I am certain that whatever we see as a "virtual conference" will not have much in common with whatever survives the pandemic and the shift to dispersed distribution. 

One last note, the pandemic will eventually die down to a background issue. When this occurs, will we rush back to attending live conferences? Think about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The genealogical overburden of duplicate work


The definition of "overburden" that I am using here refers to the "rock or soil overlying a mineral deposit, archaeological site, or other underground feature." Google Dictionary. In doing genealogical research it is necessary to remove the "overburden" of duplicate entries, previously inaccurately done research, and other detritus before we can actually make some progress. Here is an example of the overburden from a recent FamilySearch Family Tree search. 

All of these entries for "Herodias Watson" are the same person and none of them showed up as duplicates until I started merging the duplicates down through this list. But the issue of overburden is much deeper than just an afternoon spent merging duplicates and correcting inaccurate entries in a family tree. I am acutely aware of the huge overburden that I began to remove almost 40 years ago. I spent the first 15 or so years of my involvement in genealogical research merely wading through all the paper that had been accumulated by members of my family over the previous 100+ years. This long list of nearly identical entries above is only a microscopically small indication of the number of similar entries I have had to endure to get to a few genealogical gems. 

One ancestral line back about six or so generations is the Sheldon line beginning with my 5th Great-grandmother, Elizabeth Sheldon, b. 1713, d. 1801. This family is mainly from Rhode Island as were those in my Tanner surname line. The problem with both the Tanner surname and the Sheldon surname is that these are fairly common names and both families names all their children with the same names. A quick look on shows that this website has almost 800,000 records for the Tanner surname and almost 500,000 for the Sheldon surname. One important fact about both these names is that people with these surnames are not necessarily related. When you get back to Rhode Island in the 1600s, commentators on the family's genealogy acknowledge that there are two original Sheldons named John who are not related. They are referred to as the "John Sheldon of Providence" and the "John Sheldon of Kings Towne." There are also people named John Sheldon at the time living in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The confusion in the Family Tree is so complete as to boggle the mind of the most persistent researcher. 

When someone with less experience starts to work in these "messy" areas of their family tree, it is almost inevitable that they become confused, especially when there are "sources" supporting the entries when the real historical person was misidentified. One simple example from my own lines was my direct line ancestor, William Tanner, b. about 1688 probably in England but possibly in Rhode Island. People kept adding a parish record from England for a "William Tanner" born about the same time but at that time there were over 1,700 William Tanners listed in the records of and there were no records connecting any of the William Tanners in England. Why would someone doubt the entry when there was a parish record to support the christening. What is even harder to detect is the fact that this particular "William Tanner" was only one of approximately a dozen men with that name during the time period when Francis Tanner, the documented end-of-line person was born. 

Although a tremendous amount of work has gone into some of these lines, the information is usually contradictory and unsupported. I believe that the main issue with online family trees is this massive duplication of effort that has occurred. The Family Tree and a few other consolidated family tree websites such as and, have created a mechanism where this overburden can eventually be eliminated but in many cases all that has been acheived is to graphically illustrate the problem. For example, the problem I mentioned about John Sheldon in Rhode Island from the FamilySearch Family Tree is duplicated in and in likely because the information came from the same faulty original sources. 

Now when I go back to my early years of genealogical research, I now realize that I "fell" for many of these overburden traps since my original research was based on Family Group Records that were submitted over a period of about 100 years to the Genealogical Society of Utah, now FamilySearch. One of the biggest problems is the failure of many genealogists to even recognize that this huge overburder of duplicate and inaccurate records even exists. 

Meanwhile, I have plenty of work to do. It is obvious just from this last week's work that I have yet barely scratched the surface of the problems that exist on my direct line ancestors in the online collaborative family trees. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Blinded by a Pedigree Chart

 This is an example of the "standard" or traditional pedigree chart used by genealogists in this format and many other similar formats for hundreds of years, primarily, in Western European countries. Here is an example of one from the late 1700s.

An ahnentafel family tree displaying an ancestor chart of Sigmund Christoph, Graf von Zeil und Trauchburg

Whether oriented horizontally or vertically, the charts have the same information. What they show, however, is significantly misleading and culturally prejudicial. Why does this particular type of chart exist? The primary reason involves the establishment of a system of validation for royalty and nobility based upon the concept of primogeniture or inheritance through the firstborn son.

I have been reading through a lesson book for teaching genealogy published back in 1943. Here is the citation to the book. 

Deseret Sunday School Union Board (Salt Lake City, Utah). 1943. Adventures in research: genealogical training class Sunday School Lessons. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Sunday School Union Board.

The emphasis and outline of this lesson manual are illustrative of many of the same basic attitudes commonly taught today. Here is quote from the book that reflects a common genealogical attitude even today. The quote is in the context of telling about how someone started their genealogical research effort by taking some classes.
One of the lessons stressed [in the classes] the duty of everyone to trace his lineal ancestors even in the case of adoption, for "the bloodline is the first responsibility."

Hence, the traditional pedigree chart. One result of this emphasis was apparent to me when I began my own ancestral research. Many of my predecessor researchers had focused only on their own surname line and had recorded only the "bloodline" in their pedigrees. This focus is still extremely evident today in many of the online family trees. Here is an example from the Family Tree. 

Granted, this illustration reflects the way records were kept back in the 17th and 16th Centuries but it does illustrate the influence of the standard pedigree chart. If you were to zoom in on this line, you would also see that the wives in this direct line are not identified even by given name. Here is an example.

This is not an extreme or rare example, it is rather common. 

Now, what have we lost through this focus on the "bloodline" as was understood by generations of genealogists? The answer is more readily apparent when we impose our Western European cultural emphasis on non-European cultures. This emphasis blinds us to family relationships that do not "fit" within our standard pedigree format as expressed by the anthropological term "kinship." Here is a reference to a good introduction to the concept of kinship. 

“The Nature of Kinship: Menu of Topics.” Accessed August 22, 2020.

Here is an introductory quote from this website:
Kinship refers to the culturally defined relationships between individuals who are commonly thought of as having family ties.   All societies use kinship as a basis for forming social groups and for classifying people.  However, there is a great amount of variability in kinship rules and patterns around the world.  In order to understand social interaction, attitudes, and motivations in most societies, it is essential to know how their kinship systems function.

Essentially, by a narrow focus on the traditional pedigree chart and its implications, we lose all of the family kinship relationships. Here is another quote from the website showing what is lost. 

In societies using matrilineal descent, the social relationship between children and their biological father tends to be different than most people would expect due to the fact that he is not a member of their matrilineal family.  In the case of ego below, the man who would have the formal responsibilities that European cultures assign to a father would be his mother's brother (MoBr), since he is the closest elder male kinsmen.  Ego's father would have the same kind of responsibilities for his sister's children.

This is a representation of matrilineal descent. 

Focusing on the "standard" bloodline Western European model developed to validate royalty and nobility obscures, ignores, and denigrates this cultural reality. In fact, this emphasis forces genealogists to become blinded in their research efforts outside of the narrow cultural model inherited from Western Europe. 

Interestingly, this emphasis is so pervasive in the historically predominant culture of the United States that the currently violent political atmosphere reflects this bias. The increasing popularity of genealogical DNA testing, largely ignored by those who support any concept of racial supremacy, undermines the cultural basis for the standard pedigree model. 

It is also interesting that the immensely popular Harry Potter series of books is based on a theme of the conflict engendered by claims of racial purity. 

It is time that genealogists stop promoting a narrow view of lineage and kinship and begin to discuss ideas of ways that kinship relationships can be preserved and documented. I think that the web format for the internet with clouds of relationships based on cultural kinship is the best representation of reality. What do you think?

Friday, August 21, 2020

Take the time to view a webinar on genealogy


The Brigham Young University Family History Library may be closed to all but students and University staff but we are still producing about four or five webinars and instructional videos a week uploaded to the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel and posted to the BYU Family History Library's website. You can subscribe to our YouTube Channel and get notifications of any newly posted videos or you can just check the YouTube Channel from time to time or email the Library and be put on their email list. I am doing only about one new BYU Webinar a month, but we have a lot of other people involved.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

We are still providing support from the Brigham Young University Family History Library


Because of the pandemic, physical access to the Brigham Young University Family History Library has been severely limited since March of 2020. With the continuation of the restrictions, the staff and missionary/volunteers at the Library have been organized to provide online or telephonic support to anyone who needs help with their genealogy or family history. You can find out about our virtual classes every Sunday, our regularly scheduled webinars, other virtual classes, and virtual support from our website. If you call or email the Library, the staff will forward your inquiry to one of the missionaries who can best help you.

Personally, I have been helping a few people every week with research questions. You are welcome to contact the library or me directly. Leave a comment on my blog or contact me by email or through Facebook. Here is the contact information for the Library. 

Family History Assistance (Missionary Volunteers)

For family history help by email or phone, or to schedule a virtual family history consultation or group instruction.*

Email:, Phone: (801) 422-3766

*Although we cannot currently host groups in person, we can schedule YSA or other groups for virtual classes or other group instruction.

If you leave a comment on my blog with your question and contact information, I will not publish the comment but I can then contact you about your question.  

Monday, August 17, 2020

What are "new" records on genealogy websites?


The large online genealogy database/family tree websites regularly advertise that they have new records for their users to search. What does this really mean? Let me give a few examples. regularly sends out a list of "New" records. Here is the latest announcement.

If you follow the link, you will see that the word "New" refers to newly indexed records and not records added to the website. Some time ago, FamilySearch stopped listing the newly added records and listed only newly indexed records. Are they still adding records to the website? It is really hard to tell but it appears from the dates on some of the records that really new records are being frequently added. Over time, the number of records on the website seems to go up. See Facts.

What about Ancestry announces new records from time to time. The new records are all listed in the Ancestry Card Catalog. Here is a screenshot of the latest list of "New" records. 

Interestingly, the total number of collections on the website in the above screenshot is 32,813. This screenshot was taken the day this post was uploaded, 17 August 2020. Here is a screenshot of the same Card Catalog taken on 24 June 2016.

So, more than four years ago, there were 32,638 collections in the Card Catalog. So the increase of new collections is only about 175 new collections over four years or about 43 a year. I decided to look further back in my old posts and found that in a post from 12 May 2012, had 30,671 collections of records so from 2012 to 2016, the number of collections on the website went down. So, there is a really good question about the definition of "new" records. Back in 2012, Ancestry claimed a total of over 10 billion records. currently claims 27 billion records. See Ancestry Corporate, The many ways our family has grown

What about Their growth numbers are straightforward and simple to understand. Here is the current total of records.

The number of collections and records continues to increase and the new records actually appear on the website Collection Catalog. New records are marked "New" and updated records are marked "Updated." I can go back just a few years and see the difference. Back in 2014, I did a presentation about MyHeritage and the number of records at that time was about 4 billion. That averages to over a billion new records added every year. 

The idea here is that when it comes to claims about the total number of records on any one website, the real issue is whether or not they have the records you need to find your family. Each of the big websites has unique records and in each case, those records might be exactly what you need but it is also possible that the records you need are somewhere else. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Spotting and correcting errors in an online family tree


In this post, I will give an example from the Family Tree, of an entry that has some basic problems. I will then show how those problems can be identified and, if possible, resolved. This process of talking through issues in a particular "case" is similar to the case method used to teach in most law schools in the United States. 

Here is my case:

There are already two data problems found by the FamilySearch website, but the real issue is less obvious. Here are the two families side-by-side. By the way, Thomas Sheldon is the son of one of my direct line 6th Great-grandfathers, Isaac Sheldon, b. 1686, d. 1752).

If Thomas Sheldon was born in 1708 and died in 1750, The last three children either do not belong to this family or the dates are wrong because the three were born will after he died. But we need to look further. His wife Harriet Winters is listed a born in 1715 and the first child is listed as born in 1731 when his mother was 16 years old. Not impossible but also something to look into. The last child listed who was not born after the father's death date was supposedly born in 1747 when the mother would have been 32 years old so 10 children would have been possible. But since she was only about 35 years old, one possibility is that she remarried after her first husband died and the last three children are hers in which case, they have the wrong names. 

What do Thomas Sheldon's 7 listed sources say? The sources substantiate Thomas Sheldon's birth date and the names of his parents. However, the other six sources came from and are not at all helpful. Normally, I would detach all six of these extraneous sources. It is apparent that we don't have a source for Thomas' death. Some of the listed children have some sources but some do not have any. Where were these children born? Bear in mind that both of the listed parents are shown as born in Rhode Island and dying in New York. They did not travel to England to have children especially after their father died. Here is the list of stated birth locations for each of the children but bear in mind that some of them have no supporting sources.
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • Rhode Island
  • New York
  • New York
  • England
I think we can safely say that the three children who are listed as born after the father died probably are not children of this marriage. But wait, the father, Thomas Sheldon, was born in Rhode Island but got married in New York and died in New York. His wife, Harriet Winters, was also supposedly born in Rhode Island and died in New York however, all of the children, except the three born after their supposed father's death, were listed as born in Rhode Island. If all this is correct then the father could have lived only a very short time in New York before he died. (Note: The sources listed as "Legacy Sources" were copied by the FamilySearch program from earlier programs or databases. Absent some reference to an actual source, they are useless). 

Looking at the sources for the children, I find the following:
  • Issac Sheldon, Sr. -- No record of birth, mention in two census records, will
  • Thomas Sheldon -- One census record 1790 no birth or death record
  • Susan Sheldon -- No sources (two legacy sources without any references)
  • Gideon Sheldon -- No sources
  • John Sheldon -- No sources (one legacy source with no reference to a source)
  • George Sheldon -- Burial record (FindAGrave), Mention in a book, will, (one legacy source) no birth date or parents
  • Colonel Joseph Sheldon Esq. -- A FindAGrave reference with death date and burial date, no birth information
  • Benjamin Sheldon -- No sources
  • Potter Sheldon -- two references to the 1790 U.S. Federal Census and a will in 1798
  • Caleb Sheldon -- FindAGrave reference and a will (legacy source without any mention as to where the information was obtained)
  • Hanna Sheldon -- FindAGrave reference to burial, birth date, and death date, no parents identified
  • Sarah Sheldon -- No sources
  • Content Sheldon (England) -- No sources
In short, there is not one source linking any of these children to their parents. Can this be fixed? Almost all these family members were born in the first half of the 18th Century (the 1700s) and finding records in that time frame is difficult. As is the case with all these issues, I have to ask the question about whether or not I want to take the time to sort out this situation? By the way, there are specifically cited sources for the birth of the father, Thomas Sheldon, and his siblings as the children of Isaac Sheldon and Susannah Potter. However, when I started, there was also no marriage record or even a reference to the marriage of Thomas Sheldon and Harriet Winters. I finally did remove the last child who was born in England. 

At this point, there is a real issue as to whether or not to try to "start over" with a family such as this one with NO supporting sources. Where did this information come from? 

Over the long run, I usually work with the information that is in the family tree and do some research to see if any of the information is real. After doing some research, I added the following records as sources:
  • Thomas Sheldon in the U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 showing birth year as 1709 and wife as Harriet Winters in New York. 
  • Thomas Sheldon in Rhode Island_ Vital Records, 1636-1850
I do have to conclude this post here with the work of researching each of the children unfinished. I suspect that if I am able to find Thomas Sheldon's (the father) will, I can determine which, if any, of the listed children are actually members of this family. As with much of what we do in genealogy, the immediate results seem unsatisfying and incomplete but many of these seemingly difficult problems succumb to extensive research. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Free access to MyHeritage Photo Enhancer and MyHeritage In Color™ for one month


Starting August 11, 2020, is unlocking both of their popular photo tools — MyHeritage Photo Enhancer and MyHeritage In Color™ — for a whole month, until September 10, 2020. Normally, these features can be used by non-subscribers on up to 10 photos each, while users with a Complete plan enjoy unlimited use. But now, for a whole month, anyone can enhance and colorize as many photos as they’d like for free!

Quoting from an emailed announcement from MyHeritage:

This continues our tradition of giving back to the community. With so many people currently confined to their home and doing their best to stay safe and healthy — we’re giving everyone a fun way to pass the time and enjoy genealogy!

Using these tools, you can get to know your ancestors in a whole new way. Your old, faded, black and white family photos will come to life, in full color and sharp focus — making them look almost as though they were taken yesterday. We invite you and your followers to pull out your family photo albums today and join in the fun.

Here is one of my own photos that has been enhanced and then colorized with the before and after:

Quite a difference! Here is a newer photo that has been colorized. 

You can't miss this opportunity to rejuvenate old black and white photos. 


Saturday, August 8, 2020

You do not need to erase your DNA information from Ancestry


If you don't have time to read this post, you might want to skip to the end of the post and at least read the last two paragraphs.

In a recent article, James Gelinas of cautioned users of who have taken the DNA Test to delete their files. See "If you used this ancestry site, remove your data now." This article appears on the popular computer tech website, Kim Komando

My question is why would you want to do that? The article's recommendation is based on the fact that a majority interest in was purchased by "The Blackstone Group" actually, Blackstone Capital Partners VIII. See my post entitled, " selling 75% interest to Blackstone for $4.7 billion." Again my question is why would you want to erase your DNA testing results and matches from Ancestry?

The Komando article speculates as follows: boasts more than 3 million paying customers from around the world, and the DNA data it manages is highly valuable to anyone who would be interested in selling it to, say, pharmaceutical companies or medical data firms. It’s almost a no-brainer that a big hedge-fund company would want a slice of the pie. 
The clincher seems to be that:
Of course, if you submitted DNA information to, this also means your data is at risk of being sold or traded.
Duh! That was always the case. In fact, the DNA part of Ancestry is handled by a subsidiary of Ancestry LLC doing business as AncestryDNA. Here is the summary from Wikipedia:
AncestryDNA is a subsidiary of Ancestry LLC. AncestryDNA offers a direct-to-consumer genealogical DNA test. Consumers provide a sample of their DNA to the company for analysis. AncestryDNA then uses DNA sequences to infer family relationships with other Ancestry DNA users and to provide what it calls an "ethnicity estimate". Previously, also offered paternal Y-chromosome DNA and maternal mitochondrial DNA tests, but those were discontinued in June 2014. The company describes the technical process of testing in a scientific white paper. In July 2020, the company claimed that their database contained 18<> million completed DNA kits bought by customers.

Ancestry DNA is commonly used for donor conceived persons to find their biological siblings and in some cases their sperm or egg donor.

The testing itself is performed by Quest Diagnostics.
If you read the agreement or read the Terms and Conditions at the bottom of the website pages and provided to you when you purchased your DNA test kit from AncestryDNA, you would already know the following (See
7.  What Information Do We Share, when Do We Share It and Who are the Recipients?

Ancestry does not share your individual Personal Information (including your Genetic Information) with third-parties except as described in this Privacy Statement or with your additional consent. We do not voluntarily share your information with law enforcement. Also, we will not share your Genetic Information with insurance companies, employers, or third-party marketers without your express consent.

NOTE: Ancestry does not sell your Personal Information.

Ancestry may share the following categories of Personal Information about you or your use of the Services with the types of entities set forth in this section for business purposes (as defined by applicable law), or as required by applicable law:

Identifiers (such as name, address, email address); Account Information (such as shipping address); Credit Card/Payment Information; Computer or Mobile Device Information; Audio and Visual information (such as recordings of calls with Ancestry Member Services or information voluntarily shared when doing consumer insights research); Inference data about you; Other Protected Classifications (such as gender and marital status); Health Information as well as Biological, Physiological, or Behavioral Traits and anything else mentioned in the table below.
This quote is part of a rather extensive document but it is interesting reading. Also, the Terms and Conditions tells you how to delete your personal information if you wish to do so. 

One very important part of this process that the Kim Komando article apparently ignores is that can and should download all your DNA data before deleting the file on Hmm. Why would you want to delete your own DNA information? Read the Terms and Conditions carefully and you will see that the guidance given by the Kim Komando website was ill-conceived, misleading, and would end up with you losing your own DNA data that you paid for. 

Good Luck if you followed the article's instructions before doing your own research!

Plagues, Pandemics and Genealogy: A Return Visit


In 2018 and 2019, I wrote a couple of blog posts about plagues and genealogy. Little did I know that just a short time later, I would be living through a major, worldwide pandemic. Such events have both short term and long term effects on genealogically significant records and thereby on genealogical research. 

When I was doing a special project digitizing old burial records beginning in the 1800s at the Mesa, Arizona City Cemetery, I became painfully aware of the effect of disease on the mortality rate, especially of young children. These records graphically illustrated the danger of the then lethal childhood diseases. So many of the children under the age of 5 were dying and I became so emotional about the records, that I had to stop reading the individual records when I saw that child had died. 

When you become involved in genealogical research, almost immediately you find the reality that mortality rates vary over time. Death rates are usually measured as the number of deaths per a fixed number of people such as "deaths per 1000 people" or as is currently being used with the COVID-19 pandemic, "deaths per 1 million of population." For example in the United States, from 1950 to 2020 the death rate per 1000 has varied from a high of 9.649 per 1000 in 1950 to a low of 8.131 in 2009 and the projected death rate in 2020 is expected to be 8.880. See "U.S. Death Rate 1950-2020." The same website has a list of the current death rates by country for 2020 and Latvia is at the top of the list with a death rate of 14.740 and Qatar is at the bottom with a death rate of 1.298 per 1000 of population. 

How does a pandemic affect the overall death rate? Quoting from an article entitled, "A pandemic primer on excess mortality statistics and their comparability across countries, by Janine Aron and John Muellbauer (Institute for New Economic Thinking, and Nuffield College, University of Oxford), alongside Charlie Giattino and Hannah Ritchie (Our World in Data, University of Oxford).
Excess mortality data avoid miscounting deaths from the under-reporting of Covid-19-related deaths and other health conditions left untreated. Excess mortality is defined as actual deaths from all causes, minus ‘normal’ deaths. 

In other words, you can see the effect of the pandemic independent of any inaccurately reported data due to politics or other factors. For the United States, these statistics, the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods, is maintained by the Center for Disease Control or CDC. As a side note, you may be able to understand why the CDC has become a lightning rod for politicians. Do your own research. You can see the extensive charts and supporting data on the CDC webpage, "Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19." Also, in case you are wondering, the United States presently (as of the date of this post) has the highest number of deaths per 1 million of the population of any country in the world although this figure is reported deaths and does not take into account under-reporting by some countries and even under-reporting in the United States. 

As we, as genealogists, go back further into the past, we will see that mortality rates increase particularly among infants and young children but discovering the excess death rate caused by any one particular disease becomes less possible. Estimates from the past suggest that about half of all the children born before 1900. The global youth mortality rate in 1950 was 27%. The global infant mortality rate in 1950 was 16%. Currently, the youth rate is about 4.6% and the infant mortality rate is about 2.9%. Of course, some countries have mortality rates much higher than the average. See 

Our World in Data. “Mortality in the Past – around Half Died as Children.” Accessed August 8, 2020.

Do your own research if you disagree. 

What does this mean for genealogists? The obvious fact is that many people died without being recorded and that the overall mortality rate increased during plagues and pandemics. If people seem to disappear from a genealogical record, it is probable that they died and their deaths may not have been recorded. Learn about the history of your ancestors with reference to plagues and pandemics. Do your own research. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Evidence and Proof: Genealogical or Legal?


Over the past few years, I have written a number of posts about the difference between legal notions of evidence as expressed by the Federal Rules of Evidence and the reality of drawing conclusions from historical records and documents. Genealogical research has been overlayed for many years by a succession of genealogists/lawyers that have heavily influenced genealogical terminology and thinking about the way research is done and the methodology of coming to conclusions. For example, one influential book is as follows:
Stevenson, Noel C. 1989. Genealogical evidence: a guide to the standard of proof relating to pedigrees, ancestry, heirship and family history. Laguna Hills, Calif: Aegean Park Press.
The influence legal terminology has become so pervasive in current genealogical writings that the use of legal terminology passes as the norm without comment on its inapplicability to adequately characterize historical/genealogical research methodology and terminology. 

Let me begin with a few illustrations of the issue of using legal terminology and definitions in the realm of genealogical research. I will start with a U.S. Federal Census Record from 1880. 

But before I get into asking a number of questions about this commonly used type of historical record, I need to discuss some legal terms that are commonly applied to historical documents by some genealogists. First of all the U.S. Federal Rules of Evidence apply to proceedings in the U.S. Federal Court system. Every state in the United States has its own system and its own rules of evidence and of course, these rules in both the Federal and local state courts have rules that differ from those of any other country around the world. I will use only the Federal Rules in order to simplify this example. The first question is based on the Federal Rules of Evidence, how would the Federal Courts view the submission of a census record in a trial? As with almost anything having to do with Courts, the Rules of Evidence are complex and require, at least, one or more specialized, required, classes in a three-year law school curriculum. 

The problem with even asking such a question is that there is no quick and easy answer. The Rules of Evidence are just that: rules. They are like the rules of a very complex game that is played between two or more adversaries with a judge as a moderator and decision-maker. As a participant in a court case, you do not get to set the rules of procedure or modify them to accommodate special circumstances. Likewise, you don't ever get to decide if your position about the facts is right or wrong. The judge always decides the case and there are no judges in genealogy. 

The first and probably most misunderstood of the evidentiary terms is "hearsay" which refers to repeating the oral statements of a witness not in court. Of course, genealogists use hearsay evidence almost continually by using quotes and stories from ancestral sources. In court, the issue is whether or not the judge or jury can use "hearsay" testimony and the rules are specific about when and how the testimony can be used. See Rule 803, Federal Rules of Evidence. In the world of genealogy, the concept of hearsay is usually expressed in terms of primary sources, secondary sources, and when referring to "evidence" as direct and indirect. The concept is that the reliability of the "evidence" is contingent on the time and manner in which the statement was made or the document was created. During a trial, almost all testimony that is judged to be hearsay is excluded from consideration by the judge or jury unless the statements fall within the specifically defined exceptions set forth in Rule 803. Obviously, there is no such rule in genealogy and every statement or writing made by anyone under any circumstances may be and usually is considered by a researcher. 

Now we get to the census record in the screenshot above. Would this document be admissible in court to prove the birth date of any of the people listed? Is there any information on this document that would be admissible? What would an attorney proposing to use this document have to say or do to render this document admissible? 

Well, this document was written in 1880 and all of the people who either compiled this document or are listed on this census page are now dead and so they are unavailable to testify in court about the way the document was compiled or anything about the accuracy of the content. The document is clearly hearsay under the Rules of Evidence since the census enumerator was recording what people said. Does the document fall into the Public Records exception of Rule 803? Here is that section:
(8) Public Records. A record or statement of a public office if:
(A) it sets out:
(i) the office’s activities;
(ii) a matter observed while under a legal duty to report, but not including, in a criminal case, a matter observed by law-enforcement personnel; or
(iii) in a civil case or against the government in a
criminal case, factual findings from a legally authorized investigation; and
(B) the opponent does not show that the source of information or other circumstances indicate a lack of trustworthiness.

By the way, there are several exceptions in Rule 803 for documents relating to family history. OK, now in order to come to some conclusion in a reasonable period of time, I have to say that a U.S. Census record does not fall within any of the exceptions to the Hearsay Rule as to the accuracy of the information recorded about the people listed. Without some additional documentation or a family history document, the census record, by itself, is not self-proving and would not be admissible. 

Now, what about the genealogical direct and indirect evidence rule, primary vs. secondary, and what about original vs. a copy? How reliable is a U.S. Federal Census record? Unfortunately, the patina of legality does not add anything to the accuracy of the document. The fact that is was compiled by someone who worked for the U.S. government does not add anything at all to accuracy either. The real evaluation of this record is that it is inherently unreliable. 

So what does looking at a document using all of the legalese do for a researcher? Not much, if anything. In fact, it is extremely unusual if we can identify the "informant" for the information in a census record, i.e. the person who gave the information to the enumerator. 

Do I use the information in a U.S. Census document without going through all this quasi-legal stuff about it reliability? Of course, I do. However, I do not rely entirely on any one record. So how does historical or genealogical research relate to what goes on in court? Not at all. You are the judge and jury. You decide what is and what is not reliable. You determine was is and what is not evidence and unless you happen to be an attorney, you probably have not concepts of hearsay, hearsay exceptions, or all the other legal issues involved in proving a legal case. It is also unlikely that you think much about primary vs. secondary or all the other distinctions made in the genealogical literature. 

So how do we know we are "right?" The key here is all genealogical (historical) conclusions are tentative and subject to finding additional information. What did we think about who we were related to before DNA tests became readily available? DNA testing is a good example of a development that overturn even the most certain opinions and conclusions. 

Why do I keep explaining my opinion on this subject? Because I keep seeing people trying to categorize historical records using a quasi-legal methodology that is really meaningless. I can stare at that census record image above for days and analyze it to death but the information still remains recorded as it was recorded and the next document that comes along my completely contradict the information and challenge my conclusions. 

Now, you say, what about comparing two documents? Hmm. Now we are back to the beginning of the whole issue. If the two documents agree then they reinforce our opinion. If they disagree, we are back to the beginning. Do we work on the premise of the majority rule? Not if all the documents come from the same source. For example, I often see several marriage records about the same married couple. But, ultimately all of the records unless made for different reasons all report the same event. OK, I know all about banns, marriage bonds, etc. and those are different records which may or may not agree. But just because a record was copied does not add to its accuracy. 

I could go on indefinitely but the conclusion is this: using legalese and making distinctions about the origin of documents does not add to their accuracy. A court proceeding is not the same as historical or genealogical research. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020 selling 75% interest to Blackstone for $4.7 billion is selling a 75% interest in the company to Blackstone Group. Inc. Quoting from dated August 5, 2020, in an article entitled "Blackstone to acquire for $4.7 billion;"
The deal is Blackstone’s first acquisition out of Blackstone Capital Partners VIII, the largest-ever private equity fund that raised $26 billion from investors last year. ... The acquisition’s price tag represents a significant jump to’s valuation from four years ago, when Silver Lake and GIC invested in the Lehi, Utah-based company at a $2.6 billion valuation. 
 In another article  entitled, "Blackstone Group is Buying Ancestry for $4.7B," added further details as follows:
Blackstone (ticker: BX) said Wednesday it was buying Ancestry in a deal valued at $4.7 billion. Blackstone will have roughly 75% of Ancestry, while GIC—the sovereign-wealth fund once known as the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.—will have 25%, Barron’s has learned. Bank of America (BAC) and Credit Suisse are providing debt financing.
 In many of the online articles about this deal, is characterized as follows, quoting from the article,
Ancestry uses information found in historical records and family trees to help its more than 3 million subscribers discover their family history. The company also uses DNA tests to give users more data about their family tree and recent genetic ethnicity. The Lehi, Utah, company operates in more than 30 countries. It produces over $1 billion in annual revenue.
As genealogists, many of us are involved with searching for records, maintaining a family tree, and relying on DNA date supplied by Ancestry.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Genealogical Research: How far back in time can you go?

It has been quite a while since I posted this video to the Brigham Young University Family History Library YouTube Channel. The video has had about 4,000+ views but the subject of extending genealogies back into the distant past keeps coming up regularly from people I attempt to help. I recently had yet another plea for help, this time the issue didn't go back to Adam but it did go back into the early 1700s. Depending on your knowledge of history, 1700 C.E. either seems like a long time ago or just a few years in the past. Writing about the reality of the effect of time on record availability is apparently something that needs some repetition. 

There are two historical factors that all genealogists (and everyone else in the world) are subject to. The first is the loss of records over time. The second is the fact that records of individual people except for royalty and other important individuals, were not kept very far into the past. 

Of course, I need to give a few examples. 

Let's start with the Baby State, Arizona. For many years, Arizona was the last state admitted to the United States of America on February 14, 1912, and that earned it the name of the Baby State. Then Alaska was admitted on January 3, 1959, followed by Hawaii on August 21, 1959. What does this mean for genealogists? Pretty obvious that before these dates, there are no state records available for these states. Before statehood, these geographic areas were territories. OK, so when were the territories organized?
Arizona was organized on February 24, 1863. Alaska Territory was organized on August 24, 1912. Alaska was previously the Department of Alaska from 1868 to 1884 and the District of Alaska from 1884 to 1912. Hawaii had a completely different history. The Territory of Hawaii was officially organized on April 30, 1900, and lasted until statehood. Hawaii was a kingdom from about 1795 until 1874. Beginning in 1893, the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii began, and in 1898 Hawaii was annexed by the United States. 

Now, as a genealogist, you might think this was just some interesting history but every one of those dates resulted in significant changes in the type and quality of records being kept and the possibility that any of those records survived to the present time. As I have written in several posts, as genealogists, we have to deal with these realities.

Carrying on the using Arizona as an example. There is still a more complicated history. The first Europeans to enter what is now Arizona occurred back in 1539 but unless your ancestors were from Arizona and spoke Spanish, it is only in 1848 when the United States acquired (took) that part of Mexico that any significant English speaking settlements began. My ancestors got to Arizona beginning in 1877. 

Again, these dates are all significant markers of when documents of any kind might have been created in the area we now call the State of Arizona. 

The point of these examples is that no matter where you go on the face of the earth, the availability of records is going to be determined by the time when the first records were created. 

Jumping over to England. The earliest English parish registers (with a few rare exceptions) date from 1538 when through the work done by Thomas Crowell, King Henry VIII issued a mandate requiring the parishes to begin keeping records. Of course, even though the parishes began keeping some records at that time, it took a while before Queen Elizabeth made the all registers mandatory in 1558. By the way, it wasn't until 1733 that Latin was discontinued in parish records. See the FamilySearch Research Wiki, History of Parish Registers in England.

Every recordset or collection has a beginning date. The two rules I mentioned above mean that the ability of any genealogical researcher to continue any given ancestral line eventually decreases to zero. From that point on any ancestral lines that extend beyond the practical point of availability of records is pure fantasy. 

So, pick a state or country. Say, Tennesee. When could you reasonably expect to find genealogically significant records in what is now Tennessee? Well, that depends on what you consider to be genealogically significant. Europeans reached the area we now call Tennessee as early as 1540 when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto entered the area. The French were the first settlers but the British began expanding into Tennessee in 1673 but the first British forts were not built until 1756. See Tennessee4me, European Contact. So if you think your ancestors came from Tennessee, you probably need to determine if they spoke Spanish, French, or English and then decide when they first arrived and then decide what records could possibly have been kept at that time. 

To repeat, every place on the face of the earth has the same temporal limitations. You can't really argue with history. If you are researching back in time and feel like you have hit a "brick wall" you may really have hit the end of the records sets you need to find your ancestors in any given location. Don't give up, just realize that the answer lies in history not repeated record searches. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Copyright, Plagiarism, Fair Use, and the Public Domain

When we refer to the "law" in the United States, we are really speaking about two completely different subjects. There are statutes, regulations, and rules passed by governmental and administrative entities at all levels from municipal governments to the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. There are thousands of these governmental entities and each has its own set of rules, regulations, and statutes.

What many people fail to understand about the "law" in the United States is that we follow British Common Law. That means that the rulings of the courts of record also become the "law of the land." Of course, laws are only laws until the entity that created the law decides to change it. The laws you are subject to depend on where you happen to be located. For example, if you are driving across the country, every time the speed limit changes, you are likely subject to a different set of laws. However, there are some national laws that apply to everyone in the country. One of these is the law of copyright. 

Except, there is one big issue with copyright law. There are statutes but there is also a large number (more than you can imagine) of court rulings so predicting what will happen in any copyright lawsuit is very difficult. All copyright lawsuits must be filed in the United States District Courts. You cannot file a copyright suit in your local state or county court. For this reason alone, copyright lawsuits are very expensive for both sides. There is a possibility of receiving statutory damages and in some cases attorneys' fees but there is always the possibility that neither side in a copyright lawsuit actually benefits monetarily from the action. 

Copyright law is very complicated and in many instances, it is highly unrealistic. Because of the cost of filing a legal action on a copyright claim, the entities that usually get involved are large business entities. For a long time, I was monitoring all of the Federal Court cases to see if any lawsuits dealt with genealogists or genealogical interests. There were never very many. An easy way to search U.S. case law is to use Google Scholar ( The latest cases deal with using genealogical DNA for criminal investigation and prosecutions. If you want to read a very long discussion about the use of DNA testing in criminal cases, see Maryland v. King

Now, genealogists are mostly researchers but they do make copies of documents and I routinely get questions about possible copyright violations. All I can really answer is that the outcome of any dispute or possible dispute depends on the precise facts of every case. For many years, Cornell University has published an extremely helpful summary of the current copyright law and any changes in a concise format that helps everyone understand the restrictions. Here is a link to the chart. 

You might also want to see all of the resources on the U.S. Copyright Office website:

Now, what about plagiarism? Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. It is not illegal per se but it may violate a copyright. The nature of genealogy invites plagiarism but copying information from a family tree does not constitute plagiarism. A more precise definition would be an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work. See

It has long been held that "a pedigree, descendant chart, GEDCOM, or any other standard genealogy form or format that contains nothing but facts is not copyright protected. There is no originality of selection or arrangement and facts can't be copyrighted. Plagiarism and copyright are not the same." See Copyright Fundamentals for Genealogy. Here are some online posts that discuss the issue of plagiarism with links to additional articles.
That's probably enough to get you started. Just remember to, at the very least, give credit when credit is due. Cite your sources every time. 

What about Fair Use and the Public Domain?

Fair use is a legal quagmire. Here is the definition of "fair use" from the U.S. Copyright Office article, "More Information on Fair Use."
Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.
  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work
Finally, public domain. The document I linked above from Cornell University has the best explanation about what is and what is not in the public domain but you always need to realize that every country of the world that has a copyright law (not all do) has a different definition of public domain. 

The most common question I get asked is whether or not an ancestor's journal or diary is copyright protected. Again, the guidelines are outlined on the Cornell University Library documents. Here is the link again: Cornell University Library, Copyright Information Center. The answer is always the same: it depends.