RootsTech 2014

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Discovery of your ancestors vs. Setting out to prove who they are

I have had several discussions lately about two opposing views of genealogy. The first of these opposing views came in the context of an application for admittance into the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and similar organizations. Mind you, I think ancestral organizations fill an important roll in genealogy by promoting interest and maintaining valuable records. For example, the DAR have a substantial genealogical library. The two opposing views involve the way membership in such an organization is sought. One method is to begin genealogical research from the premise that the researcher is a descendant of someone who fought in the U.S. Revolutionary War and the opposing view is to do ancestral research and discover from the research that such a relationship exists.

In the first instance, the researcher is generally motivated by a family story or tradition linking him or her to a particular historical person. In Mesa, Arizona over the years, this issue came up most commonly in the context of researchers' attempts to prove Native American ancestry for the purpose of claiming benefits from an established Indian Reservation. Less frequently, the researcher would be trying to prove a connection with a specific historical figure or European royalty. In most of these cases, the researchers are firmly convinced that the connection exists, long before any valid genealogical data has been obtained.

This a priori assumption of some kind of historical connection to a famous person or group of people, is often viewed as a positive motivator for interest in genealogy. In fact, there are several programs, including ones in major online genealogy databases, that encourage these assumptions by linking people to famous celebrities or other historical people though the online family trees. I am certain that there are many very dedicated genealogists out there who were initially motivated by such a desire. Where this motivation breaks down is when researchers begin to modify their findings and manufacture connections that do not really exist so that they can gain entrance to the organization or claim a famous historical relationship.

During a period of American genealogical history, there were a significantly large number of genealogical businesses whose main purpose was to prove heirship to unclaimed fortunes in Europe, particularly England. This is not be confused with the research done to find heirs to unclaimed probate matters or other similar activities.

The opposite viewpoint involves the careful examination of ancestral lines beginning with the researcher and following lines back in time. In this case, it is entirely possible that an ancestor could be located who fought in a war or was a member of a European Royal Family, but that discovery comes about as a result of careful research extending family lines.

In my own family, the ancestral lines have been extended to five potential ancestors in early Colonial Virginia all of whom have the exact same name. In the published accounts of this family line, the assumption is made that one of these families is related to a distinguished New England banking family of the same name; Morgan. This view is held, notwithstanding the lack of a provable connection between any one of the five possibly unrelated Morgan families in Virginia and the New England family.

Both my wife and I have had similar experiences with patrons when we were working in the Mesa, Arizona FamilySearch Library. On several occasions I was asked to help people with proving the last connection to a famous family line. Most recently, my wife had a patron who just needed to prove that one more of her ancestors was a descendant of a Native American to substantiate a link to an Indian tribe.

I think that the amazing stories of my ancestors is more than adequate compensation for the time and effort spent in discovering who they were. I certainly do not wish to discourage anyone from investigating their family, but I would suggest that searching back in time may bring more satisfaction that attempting to prove a connection to an ancestor merely for the reason of establishing membership in some sort of organization.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The 23 Wives of Philip Taber II

I have been watching and interesting development in FamilySearch.org's Family Tree. My ancestor Phillip Taber, (b. abt. 1644, d. bef 4 March 1892/3) was married to Mary Cooke (b. abt 1652, d. between 26 April 1708 and 25 January 1714/15). She was the daughter of John Cooke (b. abt 1806, d. 23 November 1695) and Sarah Warren (b. abt 1614, d. aft 15 july 1696). John Cooke was a passenger on the Mayflower and his wife, Sarah Warren, was the daughter of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren, (b. abt 1579, d. 1628). All of these people have been the object of intense genealogical research and subsequent scrutiny for over 200 years. Although the dates are approximate, there is absolutely no controversy over their identity. See the General Society of Mayflower Descendants aka The Mayflower Society.

I have written about this particular line on various occasions over the years. I am focusing on Philip Taber because of a situation existing in the Family Tree program. In Family Tree, Philip Taber  Here is a screenshot illustrating this portion of the Family Tree:


Note that Philip Taber is entered as Philip Taber II. Also note that Mary Cooke's parents are missing. Rather than simply being wrong, this situation points out several issue that are common to all genealogists no matter what their experience level or their degree of meticulous care. The situation that exists in Family Tree is in absolutely no way the product of anything done or not done by FamilySearch. In this case, the situation merely reflects about 150 years of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of different researchers doing and redoing research on these same families. All FamilySearch has done is to collect all that research into one place at one time. Now, if we look at Philip Taber's details we see the following:


First, the information contained in the Family Tree entry is wrong. The correct information has been verified and re-verified and has also been subject to challenge for at least a hundred years. If anyone had valid proof of any alternative dates or places, they would have been accepted or proven wrong years ago. That is not to say that there is no controversy surrounding this particular family. It is relatively easy to find alternative claims and information online. In addition, Family Tree shows Philip Taber with 23 wives.


Of course, not all of the wives shown can fit in one screenshot. My question is which of these alternatives would you choose as correct? How would you do your research to determine your choice? Why would you believe the Mayflower Society over some other online claim to the truth about the family? Oh, by the way, the 23 wives is just the beginning. You need to realize that Philip Taber has hundreds of copy variations in the Family Tree program inherited from combinations made in New.FamilySearch.org and when they exceeded the limit, are still waiting to be merged.

The tendency here is to blame FamilySearch or the ignorance and/or incompetence of the contributor researchers. However, as I said, FamilySearch is merely the messenger here. In addition, the research was done by well-meaning people over the last 150 years or so and reflects the individual variations in the research. The real challenge here is arbitrating the hundreds of variations across thousands (perhaps millions) of individuals who are already entered into programs such as FamilySearch Family Tree.

If you look closely at the information for Philip Taber II above, you will see that the variations sometimes fall within the range of dates given by the Mayflower Society. So how is anyone supposed to decide which of the various claims is correct if the Mayflower Society cannot come up with a definite date of birth or death? This points up a serious genealogical issue. It is sometimes impossible to make specific determinations from scanty or non-existent evidence through lack of sources. This is especially true when research extends back into the 17th Century.

I do know one definite fact: Philip Taber (II or whatever) did not have 23 different wives. It is very likely that with one or two exceptions the names listed as wives are duplicates caused by variations in the way the name, dates or places are recorded. What if I were to merge all the "duplicate" files and impose my personal research facts on the whole genealogical community? I should note at this point that none of the long list of alternative names in the supposed duplicates has a valid source. Many of the so-called sources are merely acknowledgements that the records were copied from another family tree.

In this list there is one non-conformist challenge in the form of a claim that Philip Taber was really John Thomson. There is a long narrative attached to the file describing the history of this person and claiming that "he married 26 Dec 1645, Mary Cooke, b. 1626, dau. of Francis Cooke, one of the Pilgrim Fathers who came over on the "Mayflower."" This claim would seem to invalidate the entire extensive narrative since Mary Cooke was born in 1652 and was the granddaughter of Francis Cooke, not his daughter.  Francis Cooke had a daughter named Mary who did marry a John Thomson, but this particular entry seems to have confused the different Mary Cookes.

So, overlaying the diligent, although unsourced attempts at representing this particular family, there is a layer of research not only lacking in sources but confused and patently inconsistent on its face. Unfortunately simply washing our hands of the entire issue will not solve the problem. It is also not helpful to dismiss all of the variations as the work of misguided and incompetent amateurs. The fact that the correct information is vague but readily available adds to the problem rather than solution.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What I have learned from Presenting at Genealogy Conferences

You might not have noticed, but the list of my upcoming conference presentations is very short. In contrast, in the past, there were months when I had three or even more presentations scheduled for conferences around the country and I had over twenty conferences scheduled. Although I am teaching perhaps many more hours than I have in the past, I am doing this locally where I now live in Utah Valley. Part of this change in emphasis comes from fundamental changes in the genealogical community. Other reasons for the change are personal in nature. I am still scheduled to present at #RootsTech 2015, but so far, that is the only conference I have scheduled in 2015.

This past week, I taught seventeen classes on various subject about genealogy that included five full days, about 10 to 12 hours in some cases, of additional helping people one-on-one. I am by no means announcing my retirement from the conference circuit, but I am acknowledging that my focus is on smaller groups and more individual assistance. In the meantime, I will be featured in YouTube videos and webinars that are already in the planning stage. Because of all this, I thought it appropriate to have a retrospective.

For many of us, genealogy is a solitary and very research focused persuasion. Attending and presenting at conferences became a way for me to add a social aspect to my consummate interest in genealogy. I have always enjoyed teaching and presenting at conferences enabled me to expand the reach of my classes. But the gains from presenting at a major conference do not always outweigh the benefits from person-to-person contact in smaller classroom situations. I find the most enjoyable aspect of teaching genealogy to take place when I am working with one person and helping them succeed in finding their ancestors.

There are some advantages to traveling around the country and meeting with all the wonderful, friendly and very dedicated people who attend the conferences. But my focus has continued to become more centered on those people in my immediate area of contact. Even though I have enjoyed the opportunities to speak to large audiences, I find more satisfaction from working with much smaller groups.

In addition, I find the genealogy conference scene to be changing. Many of the presenters I would meet at local conferences have moved on to the "big time" and only present when the numbers in attendance justify their expenses in attending. Many conference regulars now appear frequently in world-wide webinars, attend genealogy cruises and even appear in the national media. This is especially true of those former small conference presenters who are making their living from their presentations or from spin-off products. I am in no way disparaging this phenomena, but I am not in this for the money and have no desire to start promoting my own products by starting another company. For this reason, I have chosen not to submit a number of proposals to the bigger conferences and then have the expense of traveling to locations around the country and world. RootsTech is an exception because it is in my own backyard.

So, I have learned several things about myself and whole lot about the genealogical community at large. One thing I have learned is that I will be spending even more time writing. I have been working, off and on, on several book ideas, but those ideas are now firming up into plans for more frequent publication. The books will most likely be published online as ebooks and will cover a variety of genealogical topics.

Early on, I viewed my blog, in part, as a vehicle to promote opportunities to present at conferences. That view has changed and I now see the writing and blogging as being more far reaching and important than personal appearances at conferences. As I mentioned above, my teaching is now more focused on the BYU Family History Library and other Family History Centers and more local opportunities to teach.

Meanwhile, my focus will be on writing, teaching on a local level, working with individuals and organizing and researching my own genealogy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Starfish of Genealogy

All my life I have heard a series of stories with "moral lessons." This type of story is always told with the intent of producing an emotional response in those who hear the story. Because of this emotional response, these stories get told and retold regularly, sometimes with new twists or variations to meet the needs of the teller. Sometimes the stories reach parable status or even started out as parables. One such story involves starfish. This particular story has been the basis of whole books and movies. I find hundreds of thousands of references to the story online. This particular story actually originated as part of a 16-page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977), published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley's works (including the essay), which he completed shortly before his death. See Wikipedia: The Star Thrower.

In genealogy, we have our own starfish throwers. These are people that save dying collections of genealogy produced during the lifetime of another individual.

These genealogical starfish come about as a result of the death or incapacity of a long-time researcher. For whatever reason, it seems that many genealogists, perhaps because of the solitary nature of the persuasion, have made no plans or accommodations for the preservation of their lifetime work. In some cases, an obsession with ownership has blinded the researcher to the need to share their work with relatives and others and as a result the heirs, if there are any, of the researcher, upon their death, throw the entire collection into the trash bin. In other cases it is merely neglect.

Some of these collections, quite frankly, are not worth saving. But others consist of material that may contain documents and information that is irreplaceable. From time to time, I hear stories of such collections being snatched right from the dumpster. During the researcher's life, it seems almost impossible to save the dying collection. During the past few weeks I have met such researchers who were antagonistic to the point of anger at the suggestion that they share their work to preserve it. Many insist on keeping their work either on paper or on "their own program on their computer."

The tragedy of these genealogical starfish is that they are so short-sighted about the need to preserve their own work.

Fortunately, there are sometimes genealogical starfish throwers who manage to save a very few of these collections. One such person is Arlene Eakle. You can visit her website and see her monumental efforts to save these collections. For this purpose, she has established the Genealogy Library Center, Inc. at 62 West Main St. Tremonton UT 84337. You may wish to read our own "starfish thrower" story on the pages of her website.

We really do need to be vigilant, as a genealogical community, to the loss of research caused by these stranded stars. If you know of someone who is in danger of losing their research, please take the time to kindly attempt a rescue. There are many places that good and valuable research can go. You may wish to contact a museum, a genealogy society, a state archive, a university special collections library or some other institution, but in the end, you may also need to take the time to preserve the collection yourself as Arlene has done over the years.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Identifying Maiden Names

One of the lamentable problems facing genealogists is the fact that some older sources in many European countries and the United States tend to omit the maiden names of spouses. Of course, depending on your ancestors' origin, this problem may not even exist. In Spanish speaking countries, it was the custom for the wife to retain her maiden name after marriage. Rather than repeat all of the possible methods of finding maiden names, I decided to list some websites that had information about the process. Here is the list:


No, really. There weren't that many articles online. I was quite surprised. However, from digging through old family group records and looking at family trees online (about the same thing) you could think this was a much larger problem than it is in real life. That is not to say that the problem does not exist but the solution is usually doing research in greater breadth and depth. Some of the articles above list dozens of types of documents that can supply the missing maiden name. 

Finding Grandma Jones

One of the biggest challenges of genealogical research is the the unknown ancestor with the common name. Differentiating between people with the same or similar names, especially those that live in the same area, can be a daunting and seemingly impossible challenge. However, since no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time (at least in our macro-atomic world), there should be a way to differentiate between these people and pick out the correct ancestor. Fortunately, there are some methods that work most of the time.

First, I am not talking about the endless instances where I find pedigrees ending with a "Mary, b. abt 1800 in Ohio." Many of these instances are merely evidence of incomplete or sloppy research, especially when the entry, as is the case most of the time, is unaccompanied by any source citations that could give a subsequent researcher some idea what has been done previously. In addition, anyone who thinks that they have the identity of such a person established needs to explain exactly how and why they came to that conclusion. It certainly is possible to come to the end-of-a-line with little or no information identifying a wife, other than a mention of her first name in a will or other document, but any such entry should be accompanied by the evidence that does exist and certainly accompanied by copies of the document or documents.

Now, back to the initial issue, the multiple identity problem. This problem is most commonly found in Scandinavian countries, Wales or other places were the pool of surnames is either missing because of patronymics or severely limited. In times past, genealogists who encountered this type of problem, especially in small towns, have simply assumed that everyone in the town with the same surname was a relative of some sort and included them all, as individuals, in the accumulated family group records without any particular effort evidenced in sorting them all out into families or pedigrees. I have seen this happen more than once with the research done by some of my own ancestors. Whether or not you inherit this problem or encounter it yourself, the challenge is about the same.

Immediately upon determining that this situation exists, the research should begin backtracking to the first positively documented and identified ancestor in that particular line, rather than banging repeatedly into the issue. The research of this identified ancestor should be expanded sideways to learn everything possible about the ancestor's family, neighbors, friends, occupation, religion, education, material possessions. Every type of record available in the area where this identified ancestor should be carefully examined. Further, the researcher should become very well acquainted with the history of the area where the identified ancestor lived. Every history of the area should be carefully examined for clues. It is reasonable to expect that this more in-depth type of research will result in the problem of multiple individuals with the same name being resolved in the process. The main theme of the investigation should be to identify, as much as possible the exact location of each family in the community. This is particularly true in Scandinavian countries, but the same methodology applies to countries such as Wales.

As the information is gathered, it must be organized in a way that provides a way to see the way the families are distinguished. I have heard several ways this can be accomplished. With today's technology, it is possible to construct a spreadsheet with all the candidate individuals listed and then compare the facts concerning the the individual facts obtained by the research in columns so they can be compared and the individuals eliminated by the research easily marked

I usually hear some kind of claim in these situations that the researcher or researchers have "search every record available." If this were even possibly true, then they must conclude they have come to a legitimate end of line. It is not acceptable in these situations to "adopt" an ancestor merely because separating the similarly named individuals is difficult. In almost all of these cases the possibility of continuing depends on the time-frame involved. If we are talking about ancestors back into the 1600s or further back in time, it may be the case that the records do not exist to make the determination. But the same rule applies to backing up to the descendants and doing more in depth research.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Images added to PERSI

The Periodical Source Index or PERSI has been a valuable source for genealogical research for years. Here is some of its background and history from the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki:
The Periodical Source Index, or PERSI, is the largest subject index to genealogy and local history periodical articles in the world.[1] Created by the staff of the Allen County Public Library Foundation and the ACPL’s Genealogy Center, PERSI is widely recognized as a vital tool for genealogical researchers. PERSI indexes articles in 11,000 periodical titles (including 3,000 defunct titles) published by thousands of local, state, national and international societies and organizations, arranging 2.25 million entries by surname or location and 22 basic subject headings. An important tool for genealogists looking for new avenues of investigation, PERSI’s usefulness is not limited to family history researchers. Local historians and academics, archaeologists and demographers, as well as students from elementary to graduate school and beyond, will all find PERSI an important asset in their research. 
The PERSI project began in 1986 with efforts directed at indexing both “current” issues, to be published in annual volumes, and “retrospective” issues, to be published in a 16 volume set covering 1847-1985. The Family History Library made the 16 volume set available on microfiche, but the print volumes provided the principal access for researchers until Ancestry began to briefly issue CDs containing the entire retro set, all annual volumes, plus additional pre-1986 material. 
In 1997, the last year for which an annual print volume was produced, PERSI was made available as an online database at Ancestry.com $. However, it is no longer available at that site. 
PERSI is searchable at HeritageQuestOnline.com. (Available only to organizational subscriptions) 
Under the auspices of the ACPL Foundation, the project currently employs a staff of eight, including a full-time supervisor and assistant supervisor, as well as part-time encoders (indexers), editors, and request fulfillment personnel. 
PERSI is also available and searchable at FindMyPast.com $.
The last statement is significant. Findmypast.com has been adding both links and document images to the program. If you monitor the findmypast.com blog, you will see announcements concerning newly added images from time to time.  Both the links and the images enhance the value of this already valuable resource. Here is a screenshot of the findmypast.com website showing the search page for the PERSI: