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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Also, don't expect your children and family members to read your surname book

A surname book is the generic term for books about either an individual or family related to the author. There are likely more than a million of these books that have been published over the years. Genealogists often spend years compiling and writing one or more of these books. Sometimes, the books focus on the life story of author's parents or a set of grandparents. Often, they include a listing of the subject ancestor's descendants or ancestors or both. I have often encountered a general antipathy towards surname books among "serious" genealogists due to the narrative nature of the subject matter and a lack of substantiating documentation.

My own family is well represented by this genera. One interesting phenomenon is that many, I would say nearly all of these books are "self-published" or contract printed. The authors often print up a certain number of copies with the expectation that their relatives will be interested in the book and help pay for the cost of printing. Then, when there is little or no interest, the piles of unsold books accumulate in garages and basements. Years later, the accumulation of books are either destroyed or given away.

The motivation for researching, writing and publishing such a book is usually to preserve the memory of someone the author feels should be known to other family members. In some cases, where there are more affluent relatives, they are contacted about funding the entire project with a promise that their own family will receive prominent mention in the book.

In the United States and I assume elsewhere, there is a substantial industry associated with promoting the publication of these books and related types of books. One well know such effort is the "Who is Who in America" series of books that is now in its 70th Edition. The two-volume set of these books cost $227.00. However, there are a number of genealogically related "publishers" who even offer to write such books for the client and then publish the results.

When I was a child, from time to time, I would pull one of these books off the shelf in my home and go through it trying to figure out who my relatives were and finding out a little bit about their lives. It would be of some interest, I suppose, if I were to claim that my years of interest in genealogy had its inspiration from my encounter with surname books, but that would be far from accurate. I managed to inherit or otherwise acquire copies of most, if not all, of the books I had available to me in my youth and I sometimes refer to them for an opinion about some of the details of my ancestors' lives, but essentially, I join in the opinion that the information is unsubstantiated and in many cases inaccurate or misleading.

One valuable part of the surname book tradition is the preservation of some documents and many photographs. I am not at all writing in an attempt to discourage the production of such books. My personal feelings about the books are entirely neutral and I laud the effort taken to preserve a small part of our collective history.

Those who decide to write and publish such a work need to understand that their motivation is not usually shared by other family members. With the advent of electronic or ebook publishing, the cost of printing such a book has dropped considerably. However, despite this clear advantage in publishing and distribution, many of the authors want a "paper, hardbound, copy" of their book.

I do have several suggestions, however, for would-be surname book authors.

My primary suggestion involves basic genealogy: cite your sources. Every once in great while, I find a book with ample source citations. These books are extremely useful and represent a real advancement in knowledge about a particular family. At the other end of the spectrum are books written like novels with obviously contrived dialogue and details that sometimes contradict good sense and the historical context.

I would also suggest that any would-be author of such a work give up the idea of making any kind of profit from the enterprise. If the author is fortunate enough to get donations sufficient to cover the cost of publication then they should feel more than justified in the production. But the fact that the author ends up with a lifetime supply of books in a basement or garage should not become a basis for condemning the family.

As an alternative to spending the time writing and publishing an entire book about a particular ancestor or family, I suggest doing some serious research and publishing an ongoing series of shorter publications. A good example is the effort made by my daughter Amy to publish a family-centered blog called "TheAnestorFiles." Each of the short posts is accompanied by specific and extensive documentation. If a more organized publication is needed then parts of that publication are already researched and written, meanwhile, family members have access to the research as it is ongoing. In addition, as appropriate, the sections of the blog posts can be attached as supporting documentation to individuals in online family trees.

Genealogy involves a great deal of family history. It is important to document and preserve traditional family stories. But it is equally as important to do well-documented research. I am reminded of a traditional family story in my own Tanner family. It has been passed down and retold to family members for almost 200 years. Many family members who have absolutely no interest in genealogy or family history can recount the story from their memory. Unfortunately, the original story was not well documented and there are differing accounts in the historical record of the details of the events. Even the origin of the story is questionable due to the fact that the earliest written account was written by a descendant who never knew or met his ancestor. I have written about this before and I am still hearing different versions of the story from my near and distant relatives. The entire story has been reprinted in a number of surname books, some of which still are available in boxes of copies that I inherited from family members and which are stored in my basement. From time to time, I am actually able to give away a copy of one or two of the books.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Privacy and Genealogical DNA Testing

We recently had some business to conduct at the Department of Motor Vehicles to replace a lost vehicle title. As we entered the building, I observed long lines of people waiting to have their photo taken for driver's licenses. I also had to present my driver's license for identification before I could talk to the clerk processing the replacement title. I also recall that during a recent trip to the bank, I had to present my driver's license before the bank employee would talk to me about my account. In driving down the freeway, I noticed a few cars stopped by the highway patrol due to an increased emphasis on enforcement over the holiday season. If you have ever been stopped, you know the first thing they ask for is your driver's license. There is also an automatic check on your car's license plate number and registration. The officer also routinely asks to see your insurance.

When you applied for car insurance, you filled out a form with a lot of "personal" information including your social security number. I recently got a prescription refilled, and I had to give my date of birth to obtain the prescription. We live in a complex world society and identification of every individual is a fact of life. So what is and what is not "private?"

What about genealogy? My bank still uses my grandparents' names for a second level verification for online banking even though this provides a trivial level of security. I have written about privacy dozens of times in the past and repeatedly pointed out the disparity between what is commonly believed and accepted about privacy and the reality of our society. If you really want privacy in the old, outmoded sense, you would have to avoid all forms of electronic communication including telephones. You would also have to give up driving or owning any form of titled vehicle. You would have to give up going to doctors or the hospital. You would have to avoid talking to or communicating with any of your relatives. You would need to avoid interstate travel and not make any purchases with credit cards. Even using cash to make purchases would mean you could make no major purchases. You would have to live somewhere that did not make use of any security cameras. Of course, you could not vote or ever express an opinion in writing. The list could go on and on.

Guess what? You would have to give up doing any genealogy at all. The whole idea of genealogy involves making connections with your ancestors and relatives. Today, it involves a lot of online research. Even if you eschewed online research completely, you might still have to have a library card and a permanent address. The point is that all current interactions in our worldwide society require giving up some measure of complete privacy.

The last time I checked, a Google search on my name and any associated term, such as genealogy, results in tens of thousands of results. On any given day, I probably spend anywhere from ten to fourteen hours online. I also spent 39 or so years doing "discovery" to support litigation in courts including the Federal courts. Essentially, the word "privacy" simply means there are some things I don't talk about.

If you do genealogy in a vacuum, like I did for the first 20 years or so, you can get the impression that you are the only one interested in the subject. The reality is that all your research will likely be merely a duplicate of what has already been accumulated. Can you really believe that with millions upon millions of online family trees that you don't have at least one relative looking at the same family lines you think are so unique? It does not really matter where your family came from either. For example, has members in every single country of the world.

The essence of genealogy is the idea of a shared heritage. "Private" family trees practically insure inaccuracy and duplication of effort. Genealogy is about making connections and the DNA testing is all about making, even more, connections than was ever before possible. Do we give up some "privacy" when we take a DNA test? Perhaps, but from my own perspective, nothing that is not already available online and easily obtained with the right connections and a willingness to pay for data.

In my recent posts about DNA testing, I referenced newscasts that highlighted the use of DNA evidence in criminal investigations. With a little research, I found Guide for Law Enforcement. You might also want to read, "Setting the Record Straight: Ancestry and Your DNA." The information from shows that many of the uninformed online statements regarding genealogy, DNA testing, and privacy are pure fiction.

If you read the news, you will realize that very few criminals are identified through DNA testing; far fewer than are identified from video CAMs now all over most developed countries. If you are a criminal or thinking about becoming one, you might want to stay away from DNA testing and genealogy altogether.

Lastly, dead people have no rights to privacy. Period.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Don’t Expect Your Children to Read Your Life Story

Genealogy has always been part of my life. From the time I was a young child, I have heard stories about my ancestors. When I was very young, these stories centered around those ancestors who were "pioneers" and crossed the Plains to the western part of the United States. As I grew older, the stories became more specific and I learned about a series of books that had been written about various ancestors. I usually date the beginning of my genealogical research from the time I actually began looking at pedigree charts and adding and correcting information which was much later in my life.

I am certainly not claiming that my family and my specific set of ancestors is in any way representative, but one thing I do know is that unless you are "interested" in genealogy or family history in more than a casual way, such as when I was much younger, you really aren't that aware of the codified stories of your ancestors. I used to give short tours of the Mesa FamilySearch Library that included looking at the huge collection of "surname books." The people on the tours we almost uniformly surprised to learn that there could be a published book about one of their ancestors.

Over the years, I have observed that very few people outside of the active genealogical community are even aware that their ancestors may have left a record of their lives or that some descendant compiled a history or pedigree of an ancestor's descendants or progenitors. What is more interesting is that even if these people outside of the genealogical community have a copy of a book or manuscript, it is highly likely that they have never looked at it or read it.

Even among the active adherents of genealogical research, there is a commonly held belief that "surname books" are unreliable sources for genealogical data. Likewise, biographies and autobiographies are also suspect.

So why are genealogists so intent on either compiling or writing family histories? The reality is that these compiled histories are extremely valuable. The genealogists who compile such documents are personally the greatest beneficiaries of the process. Those who find the books and other records years after their publication also benefit from the effort. But what is usually the case, those who are directly related to the author usually do not have enough interest to even read the entire work. The main interest lies in those who are more distantly related; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

If your only motivation in compiling a personal history is to benefit your immediate family, you may be disappointed at the results of all your work. But if you realize that your work will only become appreciated over time, you will see how that work will affect future generations that you may never have a chance to see or meet in this life. If you focus on your more distant descendants and families, you will not be disappointed at the lack of interest shown by your closer relatives.

From my perspective, a true genealogist is not motivated solely by what others may think or how they may benefit from his or her work. A true genealogist is motivated more by involvement with the search and the pleasure of discovery rather than the expectation that someone will be benefitted.

Huge New York Databases Added to MyHeritage's SmartMatch

Some time ago, I wrote about Reclaim the Records' success in obtaining the New York Marriage License Index, 1908-1929 records from New York through a Freedom of Information action. Now we are seeing these records appear online, completely searched by's SuperSearch technology. Here is the announcement from MyHeritage about these new liberated records and others that are now available to those who subscribe to You can read more about these valuable records on the MyHeritage Blog.
We’re happy to announce we’ve just added New York Newspapers, 1806–2007, and the New York Marriage License Index, 1908–1929 to SuperSearch™
The collections are valuable to everyone looking to discover new information about their ancestors, especially those with connections to New York State. Newspapers and marriage license records provide key insights into what our ancestors’ lives were like throughout history. 
Here is why each collection is important to your research and what you can learn about your family through these records. 
New York Newspapers, 1806–2007 
This collection includes more than 1.9 million pages of 56 newspapers published in New York State’s various cities and towns, dating back to the early-1800s. Historical information is included on celebrities and important 19th-20th-century events.
You can find obituaries, birth, marriage and death announcements in newspapers, as well as important events and activities in the communities where your ancestors lived. Newspapers may also include previously unknown stories about both known living family members and ancestors. 
Some publications included in this collection are The Rochester Evening Express, Schenectady Gazette, The Newburgh News, Hudson Valley News, and more. These publications are rich with genealogical information about New Yorkers, historical events, and US national news. 
When you search this collection, all relevant local New York newspaper articles will appear in your search results and your keywords will be highlighted in each source. Every source will include the location of the publication, the date of the article, the language in which it was written, its periodicity, as well as the written text. You will then see the original newspaper article, which you can enlarge to full screen to read the print clearly.
 New York City Marriage License Index, 1908–1929 
This collection is an index to marriage licenses filed at the New York City Clerk Offices from the five boroughs of New York from 1908–1929 and includes more than 1.5 million marriage license records. 
Each index record contains the given names and surnames of both bride and groom, the date of the license application, and the license number. While the records include all New York marriage license records from 1908–1929, year ranges vary slightly for Queens and Staten Island. In Queens, the marriage license records cover 1908–1930, and the Staten Island records are from 1908–1938. 
The images in this collection were obtained through the outstanding work and efforts of Reclaim the Records. Images are organized by borough, bride and groom, and then sorted alphabetically. We have linked the bride and groom together, when possible, using the license number. 
Marriage records contain important genealogical information about the bride and the groom, including their residence when the marriage occurred, birth dates, birthplaces, occupations and whether they were single, widowed or divorced at the time of marriage. Marriage licenses often contain information about the parents of the bride and groom, such as their names and birthplaces. 
Copies of the original marriage records in New York City are available for a fee from the Office of the City Clerk. All marriages that took place 50 or more years ago are classified as public documents and are available to all researchers. Any marriage that took place less than 50 years ago is restricted and only available under certain circumstances.
To search these valuable collections, see the following links:

New York Newspapers, 1806–2007

New York City Marriage License Index, 1908–1929

MyHeritage DNA Black Friday Sale
Through Monday only, MyHeritage DNA kits will be available for $49 instead of $99. That's a whopping 50% off! They are also offering FREE shipping on orders of 3 kits or more.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Little More About DNA and Criminal Investigations

DNA testing as used in criminal investigations is very similar to the use of fingerprints and the testing for alcohol consumption. In the United States, there is a long line of court cases challenging all three types of tests. Subsequently, because of the court decisions, there are rules that criminal investigative agencies must follow when using any of the three types of evidence in court. Those rules are fairly strict and any deviation from the rules may cause the criminal prosecutors to lose their case and allow the suspect to go free.

The current plethora of criminal investigation TV series would lead you to believe that the investigative agencies merely have to gather the "evidence" to have criminals convicted. These shows portray the investigative agencies as "solving" the crimes in the same way that detective shows used to do so in the past. Matching fingerprints, producing an alcohol test or matching DNA does not automatically produce a criminal conviction. For example, if you refuse to take a sobriety test, in most U.S. jurisdictions, you could suffer some severe consequences.

Now, what could happen if you take a genealogically motivated DNA test? Well, if you are criminal, it would be the same as voluntarily giving your fingerprints to a law enforcement agency. So, if you plan on becoming a criminal, providing a DNA test falls into the same category.

As I sort-of explained in my last post, even if you voluntarily give a DNA sample to a genealogy company, there is really no practical way the sample and the testing results could be used in a criminal prosecution absent another test done by the investigative agency that showed you were the one submitting the test. The reason is that when the genealogy DNA test is administered, there are no procedural controls over the way the test is conducted. You could have submitted someone else's DNA or even the DNA from your dog or cat. Of course, you might also have done the test correctly and the sample really is you. But that would have to be proven in a court of law.

At best, an investigative agency might be able to use a matching DNA test from a genealogy company to make you a suspect in an investigation. But it is unlikely that the genealogical test alone would help to establish your guilt or innocence. It is much more likely that a criminal would have left some other sample of their DNA at a crime scene that would be used with a properly obtained sample after arrest than that the DNA would be used from a genealogy test.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Is genealogically submitted DNA discoverable in a criminal investigation?
A lead online news article from Jacksonville, Florida CBS47, Fox30 Action News JAX,  is getting some traction with the alarming headline that police could gain access to DNA data given to the large genealogical DNA testing companies such as and As a 39-year veteran trial attorney, all I can say is well duh? What did anyone really expect? If you read the fine print when you voluntarily give a DNA sample for testing, say from, you will see that you have agreed to that eventuality.

However, there is a simple legal problem involved in using DNA samples from genealogy companies: how do they know you are the one supplying the sample? In order for physical evidence, such as a DNA sample to be used in a criminal prosecution, it must be proved to have an uninterrupted chain of custody. Here is an explanation of the chain of custody from the Office for Victims of Crime of the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
To maintain chain of custody, you must preserve evidence from the time it is collected to the time it is presented in court. To prove the chain of custody, and ultimately show that the evidence has remained intact, prosecutors generally need service providers who can testify—
  • That the evidence offered in court is the same evidence they collected or received.
  • To the time and date the evidence was received or transferred to another provider.
  • That there was no tampering with the item while it was in custody.
As the article further shows,
A challenge in proving chain of custody can arise when service providers fail to properly initial and date the evidence or fail to place a case number with it.
Since a DNA sample submitted for genealogical purposes is "collected" by the person submitting the sample, there is no real way to "prove" that the sample actually came from the person listed as submitting the sample to the company. The only way to prove that the sample is from a specific individual would be to retest the individual suspect. But let's suppose that in the course of a criminal investigation, the investigative agency (police is a rather non-specific term) decides to send the results of a DNA sample to one or more of the online DNA companies for a match. Could the investigative agency do this? Obviously yes. Especially if the agency obtained s search warrant from an applicable court. Could the company, or whatever, be compelled to disclose whether or not someone in their database matched the agency's sample? Hmm. That is a little bit more problematical. Given the current status of the law, my opinion would be yes, but the agency might be required to pay for matching the test results.

But then, the more important question is whether or not the agency could use the DNA test in a criminal case presented to the court? Now, we get to the issue of chain of custody. Who handled the DNA sample after it was submitted the DNA sample to the company? I can guess that the company has records after they received the sample, but there are no records about the time before the sample was sent. End of story.

The news story is nothing but a really poorly sensationalized scare tactic to sell news.