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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Can You Prove Anything?

Proof is a complex subject. Some of the most popular programs on TV and the Internet involve "detectives" who investigate crimes, most usually murders of some sort, and "solve" the crime by gathering evidence. More recent such programs have a standard cast of characters who each have special, almost superhuman, characteristics. There also seems to be a need for a "forensics" lab character who is able to do magical things with technology. The bad people are always confronted with the proof of their evil deeds if they are not shot outright and killed.

This tradition of providing proof of wrongdoing goes back into the haze of prehistory. Interestingly, as I have written in past posts, genealogists have carried this conflict based idea of proof over into the world of historical research. Almost uniformly, genealogists are portrayed in their own writing as detectives who are discovering evidence and proving a relationship. Concomitantly, the words evidence, prove, proof, and other words usually associated with courts cases, criminal investigations, and other such activities have permeated genealogical research reports.

We do have another, not so common, use of the concept of proof in science and particularly mathematics.

By Norman Megill -, Public Domain,
Of course, as a practicing attorney in the United States court system for many years, I was intimately involved with the concept of proof on an almost daily basis. With the help of my staff, we gathered "evidence" for our client's claims or defense and the presented that evidence in court in an attempt to prove to the judge or jury that our client was correct and the other side was wrong. These were almost always adversarial proceedings where some other attorney or attorneys were opposing our clients' position.

How does all this apply to genealogy? In the past, in an attempt to validate genealogy as a "profession" some very influential lawyer/genealogists have given genealogy a patina of legal jargon. The idea of discovering historical documents and records, recording the information and noting the citations of where those records can be found has, in some instances, into a form of advocacy that involves proof. However, there are no genealogical judges or juries except those that are self-appointed by genealogical entities.

Yet, there are serious and ongoing disagreements between genealogical researchers. On the surface, genealogical research seems to have similarities to scientific, mathematical or legal investigations. We do examine the historical record and try to discover information about our ancestors. This activity has some of the characteristics of detective work and we even use some high-tech tools such as DNA testing. Can we prove our case for an ancestral relationship? Actually, there are more differences than there are similarities. If we can design a DNA test that includes enough individuals from the right lines, we may be able to increase the percentage possibility of a relationship, but unless we are dealing with 1st and 2nd generation relationships, even DNA testing has a measurable degree of uncertainty.

The basic answer to the question in the title of this post is both yes and no. You can believe something because of your own personal experience, but you cannot prove your experience to others unless they are willing to go through the same process you go through to achieve your own certain knowledge. When we are talking about history and historical records, we move into the area of opinion. The degree of believability of your conclusions and opinions is based entirely on the arguments you develop based on the historical records you can use to support your claims. Historical (i.e. genealogical) research is not amenable to the scientific method. I cannot give you a set of steps that you can use to be convinced that I am right in my conclusions. Although, I may be very persuasive and you may believe me. There is always a possibility that one more record will change my opinion.

Conviction or belief is not the same as proof. I may have a strong religious or philosophical belief or conviction in the truth of some fact. Which by the way, I do. But that does not extend to my conclusions derived from historical records. Because of my personal religious beliefs, I do happen to believe in Divine intervention and modern revelation, and as a genealogist, I may feel prompted to find a record or look for an individual, but ultimately, I have to find some historical record or document to support my conclusion of a relationship or depend on a structured and research supported DNA test. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that life continues after death. See "The Postmortal Spirit World." I personally believe that my deceased relatives, under special circumstances, could intervene in my genealogical research. But this is not the basis for claiming proof of any relationship. I must still do the work of connecting the families with historical research.

Whatever your philosophical or religious beliefs, as a genealogist we base our conclusions on historical documents and records. When we speak of proof, we are merely expressing our belief or opinion.

Monday, May 21, 2018

An Update on Photo Editing

The common practice of "restoring" old photographs has some practical, historical, and ethical considerations. Photo restoration companies use "before" and "after" pictures to show how much an old photo can be improved. Most of the time, when I talk to people about "restoring" a photo, I get little or no negative response. It is practically universal that people would like to see their photos restored. But there is more than one side to this issue.

If you look at the photo above, can you tell what the original photograph looked like? This photo is probably a print from a glass negative. It is possible that a better paper print exists somewhere that may have been made before the damage occurred to the negative. The apparent damage looks like it was present on the glass negative when the print was made. My best guess of the origin of the white spots is that they were from some type of sticky tape used when the glass plate was stored.

From an archival standpoint, it is extremely important to make sure this photo is reproduced or digitized in its present condition. Nothing at all should be done to enhance or modify the original. If you want to "enhance" or edit the photo, always make sure you are using a copy and not the "original." If I were to enhance this photo, there would be no doubt that my efforts would make the photo more pleasing. Ethically, once I make any changes or enhancements of any kind, no matter how minor, the photo is no longer an archival original. It then becomes an interpretation of the original.

Here is an example of what could be done to this photo. I am using Adobe Lightroom to make some minimal changes.

All I did was to increase the contrast which brings out some of the detail that was not visible in the original. There is a good argument that this type of enhancement should be "allowed" as part of the curation process. Here is another copy of the photo with some additional changes.

It would not be too much of an argument to suggest that the photo now looks better than the original. One of the main issues with old photos is the condition of the original. If the photograph was bad to begin with. i.e. out of focus or similar problem, it is not likely that Photoshop or Lightroom could fix the problems. But if the basic image is in focus and has moderately good contrast, the tools in the programs can make the photo look a lot better. But remember, the edited photo is not a substitute for the original.

Here is an example of more extreme editing. There is usually an incentive to make the people look better than they did in real life. If you look closely at the photo, you can see that the men's suits look like they are covered in lint. Maybe they actually were. But the inclination is to clean up the suits. After moving the photo over to Photoshop from Lightroom, here is a sample of some of the additional changes. Remember, the question is always what is enhancing the original and what is changing or improving on the original.

The more work I do on the photo, the "better" it looks. But at some point, the photo is no longer historically accurate and some of the work is mine rather than what was in the original photo. I could do a lot more work on this photo and then it would become my work and not much left of the original.

Most genealogists would not think twice about improving a photo, but it is extremely important to preserve the originals or as close to the originals as possible. Eventually, if changes continue to be made, the photo ceases to be accurate at all.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Where is the "Hidden or Deep Web?"
Sometimes the deep web or dark web is portrayed as something mysterious or even evil, but here is a definition from the Association of Internet Research Specialists about the hidden Internet that explains what and where it is.
When you hear or read about the hidden or deep web, it’s anything behind a paywall, something with a password, or dynamically generated content on the fly and didn’t have a permanent URL. These are the things you are not going to find with a traditional Google search. So, where can you look? Thankfully, there are deep web search engines available on the web.
Of course, there is a component of the Internet that is used for bad or illegal purposes, but a good analogy is that the Internet is like a huge city. You can find a lot of things that are helpful in a huge city, but there are likely dangerous places that you would be better off not visiting. How do you find what you want while avoiding the "bad" sections of town? The main way is to stay on clear and public areas rather than blindly "surfing" the web. If you look for evil things you will find them, so don't look.

For genealogists, one example of searching the deep web is looking for records in libraries and university special collections. Very few of these cataloged items will show up in a general Google search. The most obvious search engine for locating research materials in libraries around the world is As genealogists or family historians, we should be familiar with libraries and archives. But as I have seen recently here in Maryland while working at the Maryland State Archives digitizing records, the libraries and archives may still be working with their data a little bit back in the past. Here is a sight I saw during a recent visit to the Library of Congress.

I also see a huge card catalog every day at the Maryland State Archives. No Google search is going to help you find your records if they are still cataloged on a 3 x 5 card. When I write about all the records that are available online, there is always a caveat. There are many records that will not show up in a Google search and there are many others that are not yet discoverable by searching on the Internet.

What all this really boils down to is that research is open-ended. You really never get to the end of the possibilities. I have been searching for my Tanner ancestors in Rhode Island for years and yet I still haven't taken the time to go visit the libraries and archives in Rhode Island so I am undoubtedly missing something. Until I actually spend the time to visit those local libraries and archives, I will likely be missing something. But on the other hand, to make a cursory search of the Internet resources and think you have found everything online is delusional.

Now, I found that there is a book about my Tanner family and the only copy I know about is in a library in Florida. Is it worth the trip?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Resources for Reading Old Handwriting

The ability to decipher handwriting is an essential tool for the research genealogist and the further you research back in time, the more necessary the skill of reading the handwritten documents becomes.

There are two major challenges in reading old handwriting: the changes in the script and the penmanship of the writer. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to learn how to read old handwriting other than hard work and practice. However, there are some good resources to aid in your efforts. I would start with the help page from the Indexing Project. Here is a screenshot of part of the page.!/lang=undefined&title=Alphabet%20(Secretary%20Hand)
Here are the resources to the websites listed on the page. Most of these items are on the page linked above but some are links to other websites.
Books about old handwriting are also helpful. Here is a selection of books you might consider. I do not usually find these books in a local library but you can search for a library that might have the book on 

  • Barrett, John, and David Iredale. Discovering Old Handwriting. Princes Risborough: Shire, 2001.
  • Brook, G. L. An Introduction to Old English. Manchester [England: University Press, 1955.
  • Cope, Emma Elizabeth Thoyts. How to Decipher and Study Old Documents: Being a Guide to the Reading of Ancient Manuscripts. Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978.
  • Essex Record Office, and Hilda Elizabeth Poole Grieve. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750, with Transcripts and Translations. Part I: From Essex Parish Records. Part II: From Other Essex Archives. Chelmsford? Essex Education Committee, 1954.
  • Gardner, David E, and Frank Smith. Old English Handwriting, Latin, Research Standards and Procedures. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966.
  • Hamilton, Charles. The Signature of America: A Fresh Look at Famous Handwriting. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
  • Jaunay, Graham. Cracking the Code of Old Handwriting, 2016.
  • ———. How to Read Old Handwriting. Glandore, SA: Adelaide Proformat, 2006.
  • Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973.
  • Leftwich, Ralph Winnington. Shakespeare’s Handwriting and Other Papers. Worthing: The Worthing Gazette Co., 1921.
  • McLaughlin, Eve. Reading Old Handwriting. Haddenham: Eve McLaughlin, 2007.
  • Murray, Sabina J. Deciphering Old Handwriting & Commonly Found Abbreviations. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1999.
  • National Archives (Great Britain). The National Archives Palaeography Tutorial: (how to Read Old Handwriting). Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK: National Archives, 2003.
  • Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting, 2008.
  • Thoyts, Emma Elizabeth. How to Read Old Documents. London: Phillimore, 1980.
  • Ward Lock Educational Co. The Old Fashioned Handwriting Book: The No-Nonsense Hand-Writing Book to Help You Practise a Writing Style. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1981.
I took a class from Kip Sperry at Brigham Young University and used his book as the text. It was a very good class and helped me get started with deciphering some really old, difficult handwriting. But sometimes you just have to study it out. I usually start by staring at the handwriting for a while and then come back to it the next day and keep staring and trying to see the letters until finally it starts to click and I can begin to see words and letters. It sometimes takes a week or more of this practice to make out what was written. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Genealogy is Basically Collaboration

The stereotypical idea of a genealogist is an older, sort of out-of-touch with reality, dowdy aunt or uncle that collects and relates stories and spends time gathering names and dates about your family. He or she is usually the person you want to avoid at a family gathering. As I have mentioned several times before, the demographic for this blog is usually an older person with a university degree and with no children at home. I suggest we start to move beyond the stereotype and realize that genealogy is dramatically changing. 

The main problem with the old model genealogist is that he or she worked alone. The new version of a genealogist is someone who is definitely part of a larger, online genealogical community and is collaborating with a network of others who are researching the same family lines. We no longer have to rely on the interest level of our close relatives, we can now reach out to people who share our interest and are willing to cooperate in researching shared family lines. 

What is strange about this "new" model is that the lone genealogist was only lone because of a lack of ability to network with others who shared the same interest. In the past, you could join a genealogical society, but it would be pure chance that anyone in your circle of genealogists was working on the same family lines you were working on. With today's online family trees, finding relatives is usually pretty simple. Deciding you want to talk to them and collaborate with them is still a challenge. 

I "grew up" in total isolation from anything that could be considered to be a genealogical community. My family was mostly allergic to genealogy. The mere mention of the word made most of them break out in hives. Today, I have a huge circle of people who are working on my ancestral lines and helping me to find sources and making progress with the "end-of-line" ancestors. 

For many years now, I have been immersed in collaborating with a number of people who share my interest and enthusiasm for research. Unfortunately, I still encounter a considerable number of genealogists who think that they own their genealogy and are afraid that others will steal their information. Some are so concerned about protecting their information that even when I am trying to help them, they are afraid to let me see their pedigree chart or look at the sources they have copied. 

The irony is that genealogy is about families. The isolation comes from failing to involve those around you even when they do not have your level of interest. It is true that some families are dysfunctional, but in many cases, it is possible to find those who share an interest in the photos, stories, and memorabilia but may not have an interest in the dates and places. 

You might think that the benefits of collaboration are so obvious that it would be natural for genealogists to freely share their information with family members. But my own experience leads me to believe that there are more people out there who are worried about protecting their data than is logical. One factor that I see that will break down this isolation is the movement to use DNA testing as a component of genealogical research. Once a person has "relatives" that they did not previously know and who are related by "blood" it makes the idea of genealogical research take on a new dimension. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Plagues, Wars, and Natural Disasters: Genealogical Research Hazards

It is not too uncommon for genealogists to encounter a situation where a family seems to vanish from the historical records. In many situations such as these, it is important to have a sense of history. Your ancestor or even his entire family may have been the victims of a plague, a war or a natural disaster. There are quite a number of timelines online, such as this one, that shows when the major plagues went through Europe. This one is from Wikipedia: Timeline of plague.
The problem for genealogists is that so many people may have died that there were no records made of the deaths. Today, we refer to international epidemics that cross country boundaries as pandemics. A little history might be worth a lot of worry and research. For example, if your Irish ancestor showed up in America between 1845 and 1849 they probably came because of the Irish Potato Famine. During this time period over a million people died in Ireland more than a million migrated to America. Tracing your Irish ancestors back to the homeland might be a major challenge. You can add to that problem the fact that in "the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from purchasing or leasing land, from voting, from holding political office, from living in or within 5 miles (8 km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things necessary for a person to succeed and prosper in society." See Wikipedia: Great Famine (Ireland).  My own Irish ancestors left Ireland just after the famine ended.
In addition to plagues, epidemics, and pandemics, wars can also result in the disappearance of an individual or a family. Once again, a little bit of historical research may disclose that your ancestors were living in a war zone and that their disappearance may be attributable to a war.

1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer. The severe climatic change was caused by the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in what is now Indonesia. Here is one account of what happened:
Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots .... In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality. See Atkins, William Giles. 1887. History of the town of Hawley, Franklin County, Massachusetts, from its first settlement in 1771 to 1887: with family records and biographical sketches. West Cummington, Mass: W.G. Atkins, Page 86.
 Gaining a historical perspective about your ancestors will pay off in your increased ability to find pertinent records and thereby increase the accuracy of your research. If a family or individual seems to disappear from the record, there is usually a reason and taking the time to do some background historical research make the disappearance resolvable. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Saga of Francis Cooke on the FamilySearch Family Tree

One of my ancestors is Francis Cooke who was a passenger on the Mayflower. He is what I call a revolving door ancestor. I am watching him on Family Tree and every week I get an update of the changes made to his entry. He currently has 57 sources listed and 50 Memories. There are few people who were born in the 1500s that are more completely documented than the Mayflower passengers. The General Society of Mayflower Descendants or Mayflower Society has an extensive set of books called the "Silver Books" documenting every one of the accepted Mayflower passengers. Every statement about every passenger has been evaluated and compared to original documents and records. There is very little controversy about any of the entries in those books. If any new information is discovered, it is carefully reviewed by the Society's genealogists and added to the books. It takes years to get an alternative theory accepted.

You would have to dedicate years of your life and perhaps thousands of dollars to even get to the point where you could begin to find any new information about any one of the Mayflower passengers.

That brings us to the situation that exists with Francis Cooke in the Family Tree. Every week someone has made changes to his entry and someone else has to go through the changes and reverse the unsupported information added.

There has been some talk at the FamilySearch about requiring a source before making any changes to the Family Tree. With entries such as Francis Cooke and other individuals who are extensively documented there is no question that sources have been added. I do get unsupported changes to my ancestors almost constantly, but in this case, these individuals need to be evaluated and either made Read Only or some other step taken to avoid the colossal waste of time that it takes to maintain these well-documented individuals.

Another possible solution has been suggested that someone from the family be appointed the official gatekeeper for some of these people. The gatekeeper or gatekeeper committee would be the only ones allowed to make changes to the individual.

Some mechanism needs to be put in place to stop these revolving doors. The integrity and credibility of the Family Tree is really what is at stake.