RootsTech 2014

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Genealogy: Fact or Fiction?

Does historical fiction have a place in the world of genealogy? In the movie screen of genealogical life does the statement "This movie is based on a true story" have a place? Can we countenance adding unsupported and imaginary pedigrees extending into the dim past? Do we encourage embellishments in stories about our own ancestors and claims of relationships with famous people of the past? What about altering historical photos to suit our present ideals and prejudices? Is our genealogy really nothing more or less than a historical novel? Is all this really an acceptable part of genealogy?

I recently watched a newer movie based on the adventures of the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The movie was a remake of an earlier adventure film made 1951 that won an Academy award. I remember seeing the original film in small theater as a child. I saw the newest version of the adventure made in 2012. I understand this movie was the highest grossing film of 2012 in Norway. See Wikipedia: Kon-Tiki. I also have a copy of the book written by Thor Heyerdahl about the entire expedition. See Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1948. My copy of the book is dated 1951 and would be this edition in the 10th printing: Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1951.

We have no doubt that Heyerdahl and his crew made it across the Pacific on a raft. That could be considered to be an historical fact. The original book and movie were essentially documentary accounts of the journey. But what about the movie made in 2012? Are all of the incidents depicted in the movie historical facts?

I remember when I got home from watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia made in 1962. I immediately went to our old edition of the Encyclopedia Americana to see if anything I had just watched really happened and if Thomas Edward Lawrence really existed and did all those things. As I was to find out, his accomplishments were much more impressive than those depicted in the movie.

Of course this has everything to do with genealogy. We tell stories. We recreate the lives of our ancestors, not just with names and dates as is popularly depicted, but with documentation, journals, diaries and other memorabilia. But how does historical fact and a concept of "Truth" fit into all this?

In an analogous situation, as a trial attorney, I learned that there were three "truths" in a trial: my client's testimony, the opposing client's testimony and the decisions made by the judge. In most cases, any resemblance between the three was purely coincidental.

How much of genealogy is based on reality and could be considered true? One of the most common challenges in determining the truth in genealogical research is the tendency for families to "cover up" unfortunate incidents deemed "private" and not shared with anyone outside the family. This can be anything from extreme criminal activity to a minor disagreement between family members. At best, some of these types of incidents, including illegitimate children and adoptions, can be documented from sources outside of the family circle. At worst, they pass into obscurity and become the mysteries of genealogical research.

What is more important to the integrity of the pursuit of genealogy is our tolerance for fiction. We certainly tolerate enough fiction in the form of unsubstantiated pedigrees (i.e. back to Adam) that we are seldom taken seriously by traditional historians, but on the other hand, it does not take adoption of bogus pedigree to make unbelievable claims. I have regularly run across applications for admittance to various ancestral societies that verge on historical fiction. Is there a core of truth in our research or are we, in essence, compiling historical fiction?

In the end, do we excuse all forms of fiction under the guise that these fictional accounts in the form of movies, books and photographs attract people to genealogy and are therefore necessary? My own interest in genealogy began as a result of discovering that some of the stories told to me in my youth had no basis in historical fact. But what of those who never come to that realization? Are we really promoting family history and genealogy if we encourage fiction? How far can we stray from historical fact before the entire pursuit of genealogy becomes nothing more than an historical novel?







Saturday, September 20, 2014

Missisquoi County Canada Genealogy Research Volunteer Group

I received the following from the Missisquoi County Canada Genealogy Research Volunteer Group announcing a 10,000 record transcription milestone. Here is the post:
We at the Missisquoi Rootsweb group ( * Missiquoi was an historical county located in Quebec / Lower Canada / Eastern Townships along the US border) have been for the last 10 years quietly transcribing and publishing records much needed for research in our area. The Missisquoi historic county area,  although located in Quebec was heavily Protestant & English speaking with many immigrants from Great Britain and US. ( Vermont)

This week we reached the 10,000 image milestone on our transcription  project of Quebec, Non-Catholic Parish Registers, 1763-1967 from Family Search.org . The 10k mark is for the number of images transcribed,  the number of actual  individual parish records of births, marriages and burials is closer to 15,000.
We make them all freely available and searchable on our blogs.

We haven’t limited our projects to Family Search digital records- we have also  transcribed Library and Archives Canada microfilm Notary records, Google newspapers, Internet Archive eBooks of local directories and posted images and burials to Find-A-Grave.

We use an innovated volunteer sign-up sheet system through Sign up genius,  this enables volunteers to work together on projects even though they actually live all over the world.

We believe strongly in paying it forward in genealogy and think this is a little way we can give back for all the help we’ve been given by others in the past.
If anyone has folks that once lived in our area,  we’d love for them to search our records and maybe get involved with our group on Rootsweb.
Don’t forget how great Rootsweb ( mailing lists and message boards)  is and it’s FREE – check the groups in your areas of research- they may be doing great stuff too!

Blog http://missisquoigenealogy.blogspot.com/Rootsweb group http://lists.rootsweb.ancestry.com/index/intl/CAN/CAN-QC-MISSISQUOI.html
Very interesting and very useful.

What constitutes genealogical evidence? Part Two: Proof and evidence

Do we really want genealogists to be lawyers and judges? Some genealogists seem bound and determined to convert what is essentially a historical investigation into a branch of the law. If you are one of those concerned about "proving" your ancestry, I might point out that one of the hardest lessons to learn as an attorney is that facts alone are not evidence and that proving your case is never the certain conclusion to a trial. But because of the historical involvement of attorneys with genealogy, legal jargon has permeated the genealogical community to the extent that terms such as "proof" and "evidence" are ingrained and likely inseparable, permanent fixtures.

In an attempt to illustrate the differences between law and genealogy that make the use of legal jargon inappropriate, I need to discuss some basic legal concepts.

In order to protect and preserve evidence and to see that only evidence is used in a trial, attorneys in the United States have to abide by certain Rules of Evidence. The facts that are presented at a trial conducted according to the Rules of Evidence must undergo scrutiny before being admitted. For example, if a document (source) is offered into evidence, it is only admitted after the attorney offering the document has laid a proper testimonial foundation. Is there an analogy to this legal system of evidence in the genealogical community? Do we really want to impose such an elaborate and arcane set of rules and considerations on our genealogical research?

For a further example, the ability to lay a proper foundation for the admission of evidence during a trial is a skill that is learned, usually by trial and error, after years of trial practice. Sometimes, the admission of testimonial evidence depends on the way an attorney asks the questions of a witness. I have seen an attorney break down and cry during a trial because she could not ask a question in a way to overcome my objections. Presenting competent evidence in a trial is a serious business and can be a matter of life or death. As genealogists, do we really want to incur these unnecessary burdens?

I am frequently disturbed at the way genealogists blithely use the terms "proof" and "evidence." Put into the context of genealogy, I would say that sources, in themselves, are also not evidence. In the past, I have written about my disagreement with the use of legal terminology as applied to genealogy and I am not so naive as to think that anything I say will change the genealogical landscape. But I will continue to maintain that any analogy between the practice of trial law and genealogical research is ultimately faulty. The reason this is the case is based on a fundamental difference between the two systems. Law is adversarial. Genealogy is not adversarial. In law, there is always a judge, whatever that person is called in practical reality, who decides any controversy. There are no genealogical judges. Without a decision maker (judge) there can be no "proof." Using the words does not create a reality. I can claim all I want that I have "proved" a certain ancestral relationship, but in fact, the claim still and always will remain an argument and always open to refutation by the discovery of additional sources with conflicting facts.

It is very easy for a genealogical researcher to claim that he or she had evidence that proves a particular claim. But as I have already written, the use of the term "evidence" does not, in its self, carry an probative value. In the past, genealogists have glossed over the use of quasi-legal terminology and have even resorted to the use of terminology from jury trials such as "burden of proof" and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" to add a level of believability to their arguments. One commonly employed term is the word "reasonable" itself as in a "reasonably exhaustive search." This phrase has also been inappropriately borrowed from legal terminology. The concept comes from what is sometimes called "The Reasonable Man Doctrine" more recently modified by political correctness to "The Reasonable Person Doctrine." There are very likely tens (hundreds) of thousands of pages of legal writing discussing and debating this topic. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find an adequate definition of this doctrine without a circular use of the term "reasonable" itself. Can you really find even two genealogists who agree on the definition of a reasonably exhaustive search?

The use of the legal and definitely adversarial terminology in the field of genealogical research has led to the mystification of pursuit and obfustication of genealogical jargon.

But in taking this position I am quite literally swimming upstream against a very swift current.

In genealogical research, evidence is nothing more or less than what the researcher believes. Using the term "evidence" in genealogical research adds nothing to the truth or falsity of the researcher's arguments and conclusions. Let me illustrate what I mean by using a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose your father's name birth name was Frederick. How do you know that fact? What if he never once used that name and always answered an inquiry that his name was "Fred." In fact, as you begin to do research, you cannot find one document where he signed his name using anything by the name "Fred." Nevertheless, you dutifully record his name as Frederick. Now, there is a question. If you are wrapped up in applying legal terminology to genealogy, how do you go about proving that person who is always referred to as Fred is really the same person who you find named Frederick in a birth certificate? If you are a competent genealogist, you likely come to the conclusion that the name Fred was a shortened form or nickname for Frederick and do not give the matter a second thought. You do this, even though you have nothing actually connecting the two names. Of course, this example sounds ridiculous when it is applied to your father, but it can become a major issue if the relative lived in the 17th Century. How do you know which of the different name variations you find concerning individuals who lived in the same town and the same neighborhood were actually the same person and which were different people? Who decides? You do, of course. You make your choice and get on with your research.

What if another researcher comes along and disagrees with your choice? How do you prove you are right and they are wrong? Do you write a "Proof Statement" setting forth your "evidence?" Isn't this really an attempt to mimic the arguments made by an attorney in submitting a brief to the court to support his or her case? My point is that the legal analogy is faulty for this reason. There is no arbitrator, judge, mediator or whatever in genealogy who will make the decision. You can throw around all the legal terms you like, but doing so will not change that fact.

Historical investigation involves a fundamentally different process than does proving a case in a court of law. As genealogists, we search for sources. We draw our conclusions from those sources and should realize that any conclusion we make is open to revision with the discovery of another source. There is no one out there who can say we are right or wrong, there are only different conclusions. As genealogists we often despair because so many of our compatriots seem to base their conclusions on less than all the facts (which we inappropriately call evidence). Are we judges? Who gave us the authority to decide genealogical cases? Perhaps we can persuade others to our own conclusions, but that is not necessary. There will always be those in the genealogical community that set themselves up as judge and jury of the rest of the community and they will always be ignored by the vast majority of those in the greater community that do not even know they exist.

Now we get to the issue of scientific proof. Is genealogy science or history? What about DNA evidence? Oh, and you also point out that there are forensic genealogists that act as witnesses in court cases. What about this? That is another post on another day.

But how do we discuss genealogy if we don't use legally charged terms? How do we ever know if we are right or wrong in our conclusions? Remember this is a series.

Friday, September 19, 2014

8000 Historic Norwegian Maps Online


Thanks to a comment from a reader with a link, I found the following Local History Section of a Norwegian website with an article entitled, "Map heritage." The article by Marianne Herfindal Johannessen, refers to an online collection of 8000 historical maps of Norway from the Norwegian national mapping Authority. These websites are in Norwegian and if you do not read the language, you can use Google Translate to almost instantly translate the pages into pretty acceptable English.

The Historic Maps are on the a separate website called appropriately, Historic Maps. Here is a screenshot of the website:


I used Google Translate to render the page in English. I am always interested in any more map sites around the world. These early maps in Norway would be of great assistance to those doing research in the early years.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Generation Compulsion

Which of us in the genealogy world can resist the generation compulsion? We always want to add just one more generation to our pedigrees. The same compulsion moved the pioneers across the United States. The country was apparently empty, except for the people who were living there already territory, and beckoning them to risk life and limb to explore. Those blank spaces in a fan chart format are irresistible. But unlike the early pioneers in America, we can jump over all the intervening territory and start with the search for the blank space. In some genealogists, the compulsion is so strong that they cannot control themselves and they add name after name to the pedigree chart with no research or sources at all. They just need to feed their compulsion with names. Any name will do and at the same time, why not add random dates and places?

Here is an example of this compulsion from the FamilySearch.org Family Tree:


Of course this Colgrove person has no sources. But it is even more interesting to look at his detail page (By the way, I am sure that Colgrove and his wife, Mrs., were very happy).


Apparently, his parents could not decide on a given name and simply called him "Colgrove." You can see that there are two entries confirming that this was his birth name. What is even more interesting about this person are his birth and death places. He was evidently born in "South Kingston, Washington, Rhode Island, United States" in 1630. 

Now that I think about it, this entry makes groundbreaking history. Not only was the United States around in 1630, but the town of South Kingston and Washington County were also there and as a bonus, we get the state of Rhode Island!!!

My, I did not know I had such remarkable ancestors. Just think of all the things I can learn from poking around in FamilySearch.org Family Tree.

Well, the last time I checked, the United States didn't actually come into existence until sometime after 1776. Most historians date the existence of the "United States of America" from the date of 1776, even though there are those that refer to the United States going all the way back to 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

As for Rhode Island, I would suggest that there is little controversy over the fact that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 and established the first colony in the area we now call Rhode Island in 1636 on land "purchased" (???) from the Narragansett Indian Tribe. 

Unless South Kingston and Washington County pre-existed the settlement of the land in 1630, they did not exist either. I am wondering what a lone European White lady was doing wandering around in the Indian territory having a baby, but I guess it was entirely possible. 

Too bad we can't develop a vaccine against the generation compulsion. Wait, I assumed that Colgrove and his Mrs. were happy. I think I will revisit that conclusion. I think having a baby out there in the wilderness was not likely a very easy or happy event. Maybe I should go look for a photo of the lovely couple standing beside their rough hewn log cabin out there on the Atlantic coast in 1630. That is about as likely as finding a source for the claim. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Orphans and Orphan Trains


During the years between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 (estimate) children were taken from the orphanages and streets in the larger cities and shipped off to the Midwest and the West to families willing to take them in. Tragically, some of these children ended up in virtual slavery. As you are researching your ancestors and find an "adopted" child in America during the above time period, it is possible that the child was one of these orphans.

For more extensive history about the Orphan Train Movement see the following:

I would suggest that you read the last referenced document first as it is the most detailed and has dozens of further citations. It is entirely possible that an unrelated person residing with a family and listed as a "laborer" in the U.S. Census, could, in fact, be a transported orphan. 


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.