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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Unmarked Graves and Unidentified Dead: Genealogical Mysteries

By Kosboot - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Unmarked grave of Woolson Morse at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY. This is section 135, lot 14964, grave no. 844 which was located for me by the staff of Green-Wood Cemetery and confirmed to be the resting place of Morse.
Many years ago, while hiking deep in the Arizona mountains, we ran across an abandoned mine with the vestiges of a settlement. There we found a long neglected cemetery partially hidden in the brush and trees. The grave markers consisted of simple wooden crosses that had long deteriorated. Since becoming more involved in genealogical research, I have thought about that cemetery and its unmarked graves. The image above is just one that I randomly selected, but it is typical of many cemeteries in the United States and around the world. How many of our dead lie in unmarked and forgotten graves?

I recently ran across an article entitled, "One Man's Obsessive Quest to Identify a 96-Year-Old Dead Body." The article describes the efforts of one person to identify a person buried about 96 years ago. This article started me thinking about all the small, abandoned cemeteries and unmarked graves there are in the world. As genealogists, we are becoming aware of the place DNA testing is taking as an identification aid. But unlike the story in question, we are probably not into the idea of digging up the remains to try to identify the people. My wife's family has a current issue with one of her great-grandfather's burial. Apparently, his grave is unmarked and until recently, my wife did not know where the cemetery was located. We are now motivated to do some investigation and determine the grave site.

Identifying unmarked graves combines careful genealogical research with extensive geographical map location efforts. However, today, many of the previously unidentified dead are being identified through DNA testing. Here is an example of the type of activity that is going on to identify previously unidentifiable military casualties.

This is a topic that I will probably address, especially as my wife and her family try to identify the grave of her ancestor.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

There is always more to say about DNA

My connections to the Iberian Peninsula and my wife's connections to the Middle East have given me further incentive to delve further into the practical realities of genealogical DNA testing. First of all, this type of discussion can get technical really fast. What we are talking about here is haplogroups. Here is the definition of a haplogroup from the Wikipedia article, Haplogroup.
A haplotype is a group of genes in an organism that are inherited together from a single parent,[1][2] and a haplogroup (haploid from the Greek: ἁπλούς, haploûs, "onefold, simple" and English: group) is a group of similar haplotypes that share a common ancestor with a single-nucleotide polymorphism mutation.
I am going to leave in all the cross references to allow you to do your own study of this issue. Quoting from the article further:
In human genetics, the haplogroups most commonly studied are Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) haplogroups and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplogroups, both of which can be used to define genetic populations. Y-DNA is passed solely along the patrilineal line, from father to son, while mtDNA is passed down the matrilineal line, from mother to offspring of both sexes. Neither recombines, and thus Y-DNA and mtDNA change only by chance mutation at each generation with no intermixture between parents' genetic material.
In genealogical DNA testing, we encounter another type of test; the autosomal DNA test. Here is as simple an explanation of autosomal DNA as you can find from Wikipedia: Genealogical DNA test.
Autosomal DNA is the 22 pairs of chromosomes that do not contribute to sex.[2] These are inherited exactly equally from both parents and roughly equally from grandparents to about 3x great-grandparents.[3] Inheritance is more random and unequal from more distant ancestors.[4] Generally, a genealogical DNA test might test about 700,000 SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms). Like mtDNA and Y-DNA SNPs, autosomal SNPs are changes at a single point in the genetic code. Autosomal DNA recombines each generation.[5] Therefore, the number of markers shared with a specific ancestor decreases by about half each generation. [I edited some typographical errors, but I am leaving in all the links]
Essentially, the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can go back thousands of years, but the autosomal DNA test results become quickly attenuated with time. From a genealogical standpoint, the main issue is the "margin of error" with all three types of tests. If we look at the "AncestryDNA Terms and Conditions (United States)" we find the following statements:
We attempt to ensure that all Content on the Website is complete and accurate. Despite our efforts, the Content may occasionally be inaccurate or incomplete and we make no representation that the Content on the Website is complete, accurate, reliable or error-free.
The Terms and Conditions go on to explain:
We make no express warranties or representations as to the quality and accuracy of the Content, the Website or the Service, and we disclaim any implied warranties or representations, including but not limited to implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or non-infringement, to the full extent permissible under applicable law. We offer the Content, the Website and the Service on an "as is" basis and do not accept responsibility for any use of or reliance on the Website, Content or Service, or for any disruptions to or delay in the Service. In addition, we do not make any representations as to the accuracy, comprehensiveness, completeness, quality, currency, error-free nature, compatibility, security or fitness for purpose of the Website, Content or Service.
Of course, this does not address the accuracy of the AncestryDNA test at all. It simply states that they are not going to tell you how accurate the tests really are.

So how accurate are the DNA tests? Dick Eastman had a post not long ago that addressed this issue. He linked to an interesting news story on Yahoo TV entitled, "Investigation Puts Ancestry DNA Kits to the Test Among Sets of Triplets." The newscasters threw in a set of quads for good measure. The real issue with all of the tests is the margin of error.

The term "margin of error" is defined as follows from Wikipedia: Margin of error:
The margin of error is a statistic expressing the amount of random sampling error in a survey's results. It asserts a likelihood (not a certainty) that the result from a sample is close to the number one would get if the whole population had been queried. The likelihood of a result being "within the margin of error" is itself a probability, commonly 95%, though other values are sometimes used. The larger the margin of error, the less confidence one should have that the poll's reported results are close to the true figures; that is, the figures for the whole population. Margin of error applies whenever a population is incompletely sampled. 
Margin of error is often used in non-survey contexts to indicate observational error in reporting measured quantities.
For the DNA tests results to have a greater degree of believability, they should come with a clear statement of the probable margin of error since the test results are certainly incompletely sampled. There could be a number of explanations why the identical triplets came up with different percentages reported for a DNA test, but the real issue is, again, the margin of error. This is especially true when the reported relationships are based on very small percentages of shared DNA.

DNA testing still has a long way to go before it is entirely useful beyond a few generations.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Unique Genealogical Highlights of the Brigham Young University Family History Library -- Part Four

Microfilm rolls stored in cabinets at the BYU Family History Library
Despite the constant worldwide movement to digitize documents and particularly genealogically relevant documents, there is still a huge amount of information preserved only in microformats; i.e. microfilm and microfiche. One good indication of a dedicated genealogist in today's world is their familiarity with microfilm and microfiche. Even though both formats are technologically "on their way out," genealogists who do a significant amount of research will still find a need to spend hours searching through rolls of microfilm or looking at the magnified images on microfiche.

Just to make sure you know what I am talking about, here are some images for reference. By the way, images of both microfilm rolls and microfiche are very uncommon on the internet. This is a roll of microfilm.
The microfiche is just a single sheet of film with small, very detailed photos of single pages of a document or record. Both microfilm and microfiche require specialized viewers to enable the researchers to see the reduced images and manually search the documents for information. Here is a photo of a microfiche card.
I should have taken my own photos. You might see my own photos substituted in this post after I go to the Library in a couple of days.

The Brigham Young University (BYU) Family History Library has more than 300,000 rolls of microfilm. It also has an uncounted number of microfiche for research. These resources are stored in large, specialized filing cabinets in the main area of the BYU Family History Library on the 2nd level of the Harold B. Lee Library on the Brigham Young University campus (Lee Library).

Both of these extensive collections of microforms are cataloged mainly by film number. So, interestingly, this huge collection of microforms (both microfilm and microfiche) are searchable and stored on the shelves only by a unique number. So how in the world do you find anything? That is a very good question.
One key to both of these collections is the FamilySearch Catalog on the website. Some of the microfilm rolls and some of the microfiche are also cataloged in the Lee Library main catalog. But my experience indicates that some of both the microfilm and microfiche do not appear in either catalog. Hmm.

So even though you are doing research in the BYU Family History Libary, it is still necessary to refer to the Catalog. However, not all of the microfilm in the BYU Family History Library is in the Catalog. Where do you begin?

First, I suggest searching in the Catalog. For example, here is a screenshot of a search for Huntingdonshire Church records in the Catalog.

This item is on six microfiches in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Does BYU have this item? You can see if the item is cross-referenced to the BYU Library from a pull-down menu. This item does not have such a menu and so you should then search in the Lee Library Catalog. Copy the title of the item and use the title as your search term in the Lee Library catalog.

It does not appear that the item is in the BYU Family History Library. Here is another example also from Huntingdonshire.

In this example, there is a pull-down menu and the item is in both the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and a few other Family History Centers around the world, including the BYU Family History Library. I should also note that the little magnifying glass indicates that there is an index of the contents of this microfilm online.

In some cases, it is necessary to physically visit the Library to determine if the items you are seeking are available. Now, to carry the example on further, you should search for Ramsey Marriages in the BYU Lee Library Catalog. Now, I did not find anything with that title, but what I did find was a collection of records about one of my ancestors who happens to be the one I am researching in Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, England.

This is an excellent example of why you keep searching in any library's collections. I did not know this item was in the BYU Special Collections Library but I found it by cross-searching in both catalogs. Also, it is a good idea to extend the search further in and on Google. You might just find another format or item that has the same information.

The previous posts in this series.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Unique Genealogical Highlights of the Brigham Young University Family History Library -- Part Three

BYU Family History Library Microfilm Cabinets

With the huge collections of digitized records going online and all the huge repositories around the world, it would be difficult to claim uniqueness for any record. But the reality of genealogical records is that many of them are unique and even some of those that have been published or microfilmed have been released only in very limited quantities. A huge library, such as the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library (Lee Library) by its very nature will acquire a large number of unique items. But in the case of the Lee Library, because of the emphasis of its sponsoring organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), there are even more genealogically important items than there would be in a library without this type of connection. For an insight into the basis for the LDS interest in genealogy see the article on Temples.

The resources in the Lee Library and particularly in the BYU Family History Library fall into several general categories as follows:

1. Physical items such as books, serial publications, maps, microfilm records, microfiche, photos and other media items.
2. An extensive list of online resources, many of which can only be accessed while in the Lee Library itself.
3. Support resources such as scanners for books, single sheet document and photo scanners, high-speed, sheet-fed document and photo scanners, book scanners, microfilm scanners and film negative scanners.
4. Preserved original documents, manuscripts, photos and other ephemera in special, underground storage vaults.

Access to many of these items requires a physical visit to the Lee Library. Given the background and the Lee Library's sponsoring institution, you would expect the Library to have a sizable number of documents relating to Mormon history and you would be correct. But, the Lee Library is a major research library that supports approximately 30,000 students enrolled in nearly 200 different student majors with many of those majors offering graduate degrees. See BYU Graduate Studies.

In addition, BYU has extensive academic offerings that specialize in family history. The university maintains a Family History Portal that links to many of the resources on campus for family history.

It is important to bear in mind when doing research at the BYU Family History Library that it is only a part of the larger Lee Library and all of the resources of the main library are available to researchers.

Genealogists are not necessarily oriented towards working and doing research in a major academic library. From my own observations, most of the patrons who come to the BYU Family History Library are entirely unaware of the extended resources in the Lee Library, even when they are physically present in the Library itself. The BYU Family History Libraries main area is underground in the Lee Library's Second Level. The BYU Family History Library main area houses the genealogy reference books, the scanning equipment, a huge collection of microfilm and microfiche records, many individual computer stations and comfortable study areas that include a large number of chairs and tables. There is also a huge collection of books from the University's Religious Studies Department. The rest of the vast resources are scattered around the main library on the Library's six levels. Here is an example of the floor map for Level 2 where the main Family History Library room is located.
The BYU Family History Library is the area on the extreme right of the map that extends out from the main area of the Library. Yes, it is that relatively small area. Here is another copy of the map with the BYU Family History Library outlined in red.

Remember there are five more levels to this huge library.

If you are anxious to begin investigating the specific holdings of the Lee Library and our BYU Family History Library then you can do so by looking at the Catalog on the main page of the Lee Library's website.

Entry to the Catalog is that white search field at the top of the page. Meanwhile, stay tuned and I will continue this extensive investigation into the world's second largest family history library.

The previous posts in this series.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On DNA, History and Definitions

Genealogical DNA testing as it is administered today provides reports such as the ones I recently received from both and I have been commenting on the differences between the two tests and this may ultimately result in my taking an additional test or tests for comparison. But before I get to that point, there are some serious issues that I need to resolve with the way the tests are reported.

My questions and comments are not directed at the procedures or scientific content of the tests, I am merely observing what I would characterize as very "fuzzy" history in the reporting of the results. The results from Ancestry are a very good example of my concerns. My DNA test produced the following general percentages of genetic matches as follows:
  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Other regions 16%
When I expand the analysis, I get the following results:
  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Iberian Peninsula 11%
  • Ireland 5%
When I expand the Irish component, I get the following expanded comment.

From my own research, I have ancestors who were born in Northern Ireland and were Protestants and most like came from Scotland. I also have ancestors who were born in Ireland that is now the Republic of Ireland. I also have some ancestors who, through research, clearly came from Wales and others that are definitely English. Now, I get to the issue of the ethnic history of each of these countries; England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The British Isles refers to a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of continental Europe. The earliest name for Great Britain is Albion. The term "Britannia" was used by the Romans after their conquest by Rome which began in 43 A.D. England's claims to Scotland resulted in more than a century and a half of war beginning in about 1174 and ending in 1296. The term "Great Britain" is loosely applied to what is further known as the United Kingdom. Quoting from Wikipedia: Great Britain:
Great Britain refers geographically to the island of Great Britain, politically to England, Scotland and Wales in combination. However, it is sometimes used loosely to refer to the whole of the United Kingdom. 
Similarly, Britain, can refer to either all islands in Great Britain, the largest island, or the political grouping of counties. There is no clear distinction, even in government documents: the UK government yearbooks have used both "Britain" and "United Kingdom".
The full name of the "United Kingdom" is the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irland." On May 1, 1707, the United Kingdom of Great Britain was formed as a result of the Acts of Union being passed by the parliaments of England and Scotland to ratify the 1706 Treaty of Union and so unite the two kingdoms.

There is a lot more history, but all this and more illustrates that the terms used by in communicating the DNA results are even fuzzier than the results themselves. This is especially true when you look at the reference to Ireland which then includes both Wales and Scotland which are clearly, now, part of what is often called "Great Britain."

In addition, none of these quasi-political designations have anything at all to do with genetic ethnicity. The population of Great Britain is extremely diverse. For example, in 1066 A.D. there was a considerable influx of French influence. Telling me that I have a certain percentage of my ancestry from Great Britain and then dividing off Ireland, Scotland and Wales is not only historically naive but really doesn't give me any useful information compared to doing careful genealogical research from historical documents. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Burying the Skeletons in your Genealogical Closet

The British Museum crystal skull.
We all have a skeleton or two (or more) in our genealogical closets. What do we do with them? First of all, history is history. A quote from Michael Crichton is appropriate:
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
I think I have used that quote before, but it appropriate in the present context. Since we live in the present, anything that just happened becomes history. For genealogists, unless that history was recorded in some way, it simply did not happen. History becomes history when it is recorded. Of course, the methods of transmission vary considerably. Once we become interested in our family's history, we start to become aware of the possible sources of information about our family. We are immediate heirs to an oral history transmitted by our immediate relatives. Some of us are deprived of this oral history because we have little or no contact with our relatives because of adoptions, abandonments or other difficult situations. We may also be separated from our oral history because our immediate family is estranged from other family members or for a whole list of other reasons.

However, oral histories are very selective. In some cultures, oral histories are the main method of transmission but in our American and Western European-based culture in the United States, we only get our oral history, if at all, in bits and pieces. For most of us, starting our research into our family becomes a voyage into the unknown.

After spending years doing genealogical research and learning more and more about my ancestors, I find that there are plenty of skeletons that were entirely ignored by the relatively small number of stories that were transmitted through the oral history channel. I have found stories of inspiration and overcoming obstacles and hardship. But I have also found that some of my ancestors were not model citizens.

There is an old saying, that I first heard from the Walt Disney movie Bambi, that goes, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This attitude is an undercurrent that strongly affects oral history transmissions. As I have solicited oral histories over the years, I have seen that there is a distinct tendency to ignore or eliminate any references to conflict or unpleasant issues. But sometimes, these issues are recorded in court records, newspaper articles, and other less editorial sources.

There is another saying that applies here and that is, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." In our case, as genealogists, we are happy to connect ourselves with all sorts of unsavory characters as long as they are back some distance in time and turn out to be famous or infamous. I am always amused that so many genealogists proudly display their "royal" ancestry when many of those same kings and queens were horrible people. It is interesting that some people will refuse to even talk about a close relative who has done something "terrible" but are proud to parade their more distant ancestors who did things that were much worse than the closer or more proximate relative.

Another aspect of this issue is the tendency genealogists display to rewrite history both to eliminate undesirable connections and to bridge gaps that they think need to be bridged. Although much of the inaccuracy of today's online family trees can be attributed to sloppy research and indiscriminate copying, there is a good measure of fabrication also. If a lengthy pedigree is impressive to some people, it is now easier than ever to acquire a long pedigree especially one leading back to royalty. It is also easy to overlook the lack of any supporting documentation. Many of the surname books I have inherited containing my "family history" start out with statements about how our family is related to royalty when no such connections have ever been documented.

Genealogists should be more in the mode of digging up the skeletons rather than burying them and don't forget that even the skeletons need to be carefully documented with the sources recorded.

Monday, May 22, 2017

DNA Update: Results Are In.

Well, according to, my connection to India and my Jewish Heritage both disappear and now I am Spanish. I have to believe that some of the conclusions from Ancestry are in the margin of error. When I received the results from the test, I could immediately see a correspondence to my own extensive research. However, I have never found any connections to the Iberian Peninsula in all my research. Here is what had to say about my DNA test.

The results are as follows:

  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Iberian Peninsula 11%
  • Ireland 5%
Here is the report from, which I have posted previously, for comparison.

The results here are as follows:
  • British and Irish 87%
  • Scandinavian 9.3%
  • Ashkenazi Jewish 2.5%
  • South Asia 1.2%
By the way, now has an interesting fan chart that shows your origin according to the records in your part of the Family Tree. Obviously, if you had someone from one part of the world move to another, the fact that a person was born in the place of arrival does not affect your ethnicity. But, you can see the results of your research rather than what a DNA test might show. Here is the fan chart.

Another obvious fact is that this is a report of existing research, not a glimpse into ancient origins. This fan chart also lumps all of the people in the United States together. Here the unknown people are those with no birth place information. 

What is the reality? Who knows at this point. After spending a year reading and studying the genealogical DNA process, it looks to me that the margins of error erase any possible fine point conclusions. 

One important fact for me is that the DNA test conclusions are and were immediately explainable from my own research. Even the small percentage link to Southern Asia has a possible explanation backed up by research. However, the DNA connection to the Iberian Peninsula is really interesting because my wife showed up with the same connection and neither of us in all our extensive research has found any possibilities that would indicate such a connection. 

Now let's get into a hypothetical situation. What if I had taken both these tests before I had done any genealogical research at all? What would I think? How would I proceed? Would either test have been at all helpful? Would I have been motivated to begin the research process because of the tests? I really can't answer any of those questions. My personal motivation to start doing genealogical research had nothing to do with a curiosity about my ancestry. Maybe someone else would be so motivated, but how would the average researcher approach their genealogical research any differently given the discrepancies between the two tests?

What will I now do differently than I would not have done before taking the tests? Absolutely nothing. I am still doing intensive research in Rhode Island. Oh, I didn't mention the two findings from about their Genetic Communities that I have very likely had Mormon Pioneers in the Mountain West as ancestors and that I had Settlers of Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts as ancestors. Both of those conclusions could have easily been determined from my family tree. 

I guess I am left to speculate whether or not speaking Spanish almost all my life has somehow altered both my own and my wife's genetic makeup someway. 

More on this later when I calm down.