Genealogy Blog

Solving Your Genealogy Problems Like Magic

23 Aug 2014

David Kwong is an amazing young man. He gets to make his living doing things he loves and feels passionate about.  He is both a magician and a cruciverbalist. In fact, he received a degree from Harvard University in the history of magic. And he has something to teach us about genealogy problem solving.

He was fortunate to work at DreamWorks, in the animation story department. He then went on to found The Misdirectors Guild. The guild is “an elite group of magicians who are specialists in all areas of subterfuge, including stage illusion, sleight of hand, puzzles, and heists.” The guild consults with television and motion picture creators to help them with illusion and deception in their shows and films, including last year’s Now You See Me.

David is also a cruciverbalist: one who excels at crossword puzzles. In fact, he is so good at them that he is now regularly creates crossword puzzles for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications nationwide.

 

Magic and Crosswords

 

David presented an official talk at the Ted Conference in 2014., in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first crossword puzzle. In his excellent presentation, David discusses why he believes that magic and puzzles are the same: “because they both key in to one of the most important human drives: the urge to solve. Human beings are wired to solve; to make order out of chaos.”

He then goes on to tell the story of how he arrived at this conclusion over time. He quotes research studies that show that human beings have a primitive urge to solve. It is intrinsic to who we are, as basic as eating and sleeping.

This could partially explain our urge to do genealogy. After all, what is family history research but a giant puzzle waiting to be explored and mapped out, filled with problem after problem and challenge after challenge. Often the answers to our research questions are simple. But frequently, we are presented with a chaotic mass of conflicting information and arbitrary or missing data that we must sift through to come up with our solutions.

Now, in his presentation he does an incredible trick. He shows how we as humans are so driven to solve problems and create order out of chaos that it often happens in our minds without our realizing it. I won’t give away the trick and the solution, because it is truly amazing.  And just when you think it is over, he unveils another twist.

But once you watch it, think about how this works in your genealogical research. Sometimes you don’t even realize how your mind is working in the background, and all of a sudden the answer jumps out at you, right? Now you know why. Watch David’s talk  Two Nerdy Obsessions Meet — And It’s Magic. Prepare to be amazed.

 

Five Things I Learned in School About Genealogy

22 Aug 2014

Five

This is back to school time. I remember a special August more than thirty years ago when I arrived at the University of Massachusetts for my first band camp. Little did I know then how much college and the band would impact my life. And decades later, I still keep up with numerous friends from that time. And many of the lessons I learned in school are ones that I use in genealogy all the time. Here are a few of them.

1. Be an information sponge.

School is a time for learning. So many new opportunities open up to us to learn about subjects that mean something to us (as well as more than a few subjects that we probably don’t care about, but could use). We benefit most when we open up to the various opportunities available to us. As genealogists, we benefit from all kinds of learning. Working with experienced researchers; taking classes; attending seminars and workshops; reading blogs, magazines, and journals; and many other opportunities teach us how to become better at finding our ancestors.

2. If it doesn’t fit, change your tactics.

It continues to amaze me that in this country we ask 18-year-olds who are entering college to pick a major concentration that will be what they do for the rest of their life. Who knows at that age? It is one of the major ironies of my life that I wanted to be a history major in college, but thought I would never be able to find a job where a history major would come in handy. Instead, I changed my major numerous times. At various times in college my major was computer science, communication studies, and legal studies before settling into political science with a minor in history.  When I didn’t like the direction I was taking, I changed directions. The same thing should hold true for genealogical research. If a particular avenue isn’t working, switch to something different. A new approach may help you solve the problem.

3. If you make a mistake, learn and move on.

Lord knows I, like most college students, made my share of mistakes. We’re human. Everyone makes mistakes. Certainly most genealogists have had the experience of breaking out the chain saw and hacking a few limbs off the family tree. The important thing is to accept the mistake. Even the most experienced genealogists have had to do some pruning. Often it is through no fault of your own, but simply because new evidence has been uncovered and shed new light on existing facts that end up changing or eliminating relationships. Don’t cling to incorrect family members. You never know what exciting things you will find in the new banches.

4. The more you apply yourself, the better your results will be.

In this day of computers and technology, more and more genealogists are relying on the technology to do the research for them. If a system tells them that something is a possible match, they take it as gospel and graft it onto the family tree. While these things clues are important, they should be treated as what they are: clues for further research to prove that they are correct. The same goes for those who blindly download GEDCOM files from others and attach the data to their own tree. Roll up your sleeves and get to work verifying information before accepting it as true. It is the only way to be certain the people in your family tree are actually your ancestors.

5. Friends made here are friends for a lifetime.

Three decades later, I still count friends I made in high school and college as near and dear to my heart. We remain close even if we lose touch for periods of time. Facebook has helped dramatically, especially during times of shared loss. The same is true of genealogists. I remain friends with people I met when I first started researching my family back in the 1980s. Who else will put up with all of your stories other than genealogists? But we also help each other. We listen and offer feedback. We bounce ideas off of each other. And we share resources and opportunities with each other. Get out from behind the computer and get involved with your local genealogical and historical societies. You will be ever the richer for it.

 

Why Your Brain Makes Typos

19 Aug 2014

I admit to being a bit of a nerd. One of the ways I satisfy my nerd impulses is to read magazines like Condé Nast’s Wired. There are always so many interesting stories, like a recent one on The Strange Blowpipe 19th Century Minuers Used to Analyze Ore.

As a writer, I was particularly intrigued by a story that ran last week about spelling errors. Nick Stockton is a technology and nature writer and has written for The Atlantic as well as Wired and numerous other publications. Last week Wired published his piece “What’s UP with That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos.”

 

Catch Typos

 

We all hate typos in our work. Whether it is a Facebook post, an email, a text message, or when writing your family history, spelling errors drive us crazy. In Stockton’s words:

“Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?”

The truth is that it has nothing to do with how smart we are. It has to do with how our brains work. When we are writing, our brains takes the simple parts like pushing keys to make words and sentences, and automates them so that they can focus on the more complicated tasks of conveying our ideas in the overall work of sentences and paragraphs. Thus, it is fairly easy to accidentally type the wrong letters.

This is the same reason why we cannot edit ourselves. When you proof your own writing, your brain already knows what you were trying to say. Because of this, we may see things that aren’t really there, and we can easily miss typographical errors and worse.

This is why editors and proofreaders exist. To review our work and help us from putting anything out with a big mistake in it. One of the suggestions Stockton received from an expert is that if you want to try to catch your mistakes, to make it look very different by changing fonts or background colors to make it more challenging for your brain. The best way, however, is to have someone else review your work for you. That way you won’t have to trick your brain. Read the entire piece for more information.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, August 15, 2014

15 Aug 2014

This week’s roundup of stories comes to us courtesy of Facebook. Many of my friends post interesting (as well as humorous) links, so for this week’s collection I browsed over Facebook to see what had interested my friends. I hope you find these stories as interesting as I do.

The first story, posted on Feedbox, was posted by my friend Thomas MacEntee. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, painted in 1796, was commissioned as a gift for the William Petty FitzMaurice, the Marquess of Lansdowne, who was British Prime Minister during the final years of the American Revolution. Today known as the Lansdowne Portrait, it was saved by Dolly Madison during the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. Today it hangs in the East Room of the White House. And it contains a rather drastic error in it. Find out what the error is and why it is there in One of the Most Famous Paintings in the White House Has a Huge Spelling Error.

 

Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.

Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Thomas posted another interesting story this week about how technology has changed the way people interact. Children today now spend almost 7.5 hours staring at computers. And 87% of teachers report that they now are more easily distracted and have short attention spans. Alok Deshpande, founder of Umenta/StoryCall (a company that help families preserve and capture their stories), wrote an interesting post providing five suggestions for the best ways to reach younger generations with your stories. Read more in Bridging the Generation Gap.

Elizabeth Shown Mills shared an interesting post this week written by Rita J. King and shared on LinkedIn. King is a cofounder of Science House, an organization that helps organizations foster collaboration. She shared five very valuable tips for writers. They apply whether you are writing fiction or your family history. Discover more in Kill Your Darlings: Five Rules for Writers.

My friend Mark Andrew Davis provided a link to a post in the New York Times blog, The Upshot. Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy took census information from the University of Minnesota Population Center to create some very interesting graphic charts. State by state, they chart the places of birth of the population and how it changed from 1900 to 2012. Each chart has a sliding bar to show you what the numbers were in any given census year. Check out your states of interest in Where We Came From, State by State.

Finally comes a post from my friend and former NEHGS colleague, Chris Child. This week the world suffered an incredible loss with the death of comedian Robin Williams. Chris enjoys researching famous individuals and public figures. Chris has done some interesting work that shows Robin was a cousin of three United States presidents through their common descent from William Armistead of Virginia. Get the details at Notes on Robin Williams’s Ancestry.

Creating Your Legacy

13 Aug 2014

My friend Nick Gombash is a professional genealogist who specializes in Hungarian and German research. He is extremely well-informed, and has helped me on more than one occasion. Once he helped me with a friend’s ancestry. I gave him the names of a couple married in Bohemia in the mid-nineteenth century. He found the marriage record in a small village within an hour (a task that would have taken me considerably longer no doubt).

Back in 2010 he wanted to find a way to help others who were researching their Hungarian ancestors. His solution was to found the Hungary Exchange. The exchange is a place for these researchers to come together and collaborate on information. More than 1,500 people are now part of the Hungary Exchange forum on Facebook.

In addition to the forum, volunteers have created a number of databases that people can search for free. First is a surname database to facilitate collaboration between individuals researching the same families or the same locations. Additional databases include extracted information from census and taxation records, civil registrations, parish records, and nobility records among others. The databases are organized by county. There are also some databases for places in the U.S. where Hungarians settled in larger numbers, such as Illinois, Michigan, and Pensylvania.

There are also a number of research aids and guides to help researchers:

  • A Guide to Hungarian Parish Registers
  • Digital Books
  • Given Names in Hungarian, English and Latin
  • Hungarian Surname Meanings

There are also links to a large number of resources available online for researching Hungarian resources.

 

Hungary Exchange

 

Nick is a very resourceful man, and has worked hard to build the Hungary Exchange into a valuable resource, and this week he had a new idea. This is one that all genealogists should consider.

A good friend of Nick’s was a genealogist for many years. She passed recently and left her library of books to him. After selecting a few volumes for his own personal library, he decided to sell the rest to raise money to support the Hungary Exchange.

This is a not insignificant collection, either; it includes hundreds of volumes. And not all of the books deal with Hungarian research. Many deal with Illinois, Indiana, New England, and other American localities. Some are historical in nature, and some are general genealogical methodology. He researched the titles through online booksellers to get an idea of the value, and created a list, which he posted online for all to see. Proceeds will go to support the work of the exchange. Any books that remain unsold will be donated.

What a great idea. What will you do with your own personal library when the time comes? Think about following Nick’s lead. You can leave them to a Society, or have your executor sell them and donate the money to organizations you want to support. What a terrific way to continue your legacy. I’m very proud of Nick and his work, and all that he has accomplished. He is only in his twenties now; I can’t wait to see what other new ideas he comes up with in the future. And if you’re in the market for a book, check out the list and see if any titles interest you.

O, Captain, My Captain!

12 Aug 2014

The world is a lot less funny today. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching a crazy man in a red jumpsuit wander in Milwaukee and get into a contest with Arthur Fonzarelli. Robin Williams was absolutely hilarious, and it was the beginning of an incredible love affair between Robin and the public. And his untimely death is a reminder to us all.

Robin was an incredible talent. While initially famous for his comedic abilities, he also was an amazing dramatic actor. For me, one of his most seminal films came in 1989, Dead Poets Society. His character was John Keating, an English professor at a private school, who taught his students not only to read poetry, but to live life. In his initial scene, he enters the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He takes his students into the hallway, and asks one of them to read Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying: And this ame flower that smiles to-day; To-morrow will be dying.”

He has them look at pictures of former students from the nineteenth century. He points out that the one thing that all those students have in common is that they are now “food for worms.” He encourages his students with the words Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). He wants each of them to live an extraordinary life.

 

Robin Williams Dead Poets Society

 

Nobody knows better than genealogists how fleeting life can be. Or what each of us lives with on a day to day basis. We take bits and pieces of information to put together a version of our ancestors’ lives, but often we are missing the significant details.

Many think that living an extraordinary life means that we must be rich or famous. This is not true. We, each of us, get to define what extraordinary means to us. But we all too often forget, and get caught up in the drift of life. As we move through the stages of life, we sometimes get complacent and lose track of what we really want. To have an extraordinary life, we simply need to look back on what we want, and work to get it (which is not to say we don’t modify our desires and goals along the way).

When Dead Poets Society was released, I was not long out of college and trying to determine what I wanted to be. I decided that it was time to try same crazy new things, so I quit my job and moved to the big city of Boston. Since then, I’ve marched for civil rights on the streets of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. I’ve worked to get laws and other protections in place to prevent bullying and youth suicide. I’ve performed with incredibly talented people, across the country and around the world to audiences of up to hundreds of thousands of people. I even got to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. I’ve visited almost every state, and sixteen countries on three continents. And I make my living by helping people find their family stories, to help them discover where they come from.

In the movie, Keating quotes Walt Whitman: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” He then turns to his students and asks “What will your verse be?” The movie ends with Keating leaving the school, and his students climbing onto their desks, promising to look at life from a different angle, and calling him “O, Captain, My Captain!). Robin Williams left not only a verse, but an entire musical arrangement. And now I ask you “What will YOUR verse be?” Whatever it is, write it down. Be certain that future generations know the things that were important to you, and what was not. Let them know what your extraordinary life was like for you.

How Noah’s Skeleton Can Help Your Research

09 Aug 2014

This week the Penn Museum in Philadelphia reported an extraordinary find. The Penn Museum, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, is dedicated to archaeology. The museum has initiated a project to digitize records from a joint expedition to what is today Iraq with the British Museum that took place between 1922 and 1934.

During the course of the expedition, Sir Leonard Woolley led an exaction at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The team discovered the skeleton about 40 feet down, in a layer of silt. The skeleton was shipped back to the Penn around 1930, where it was put into storage in the basement. And there is has remained for almost 85 years, completely forgotten.

Thanks to the digitization project, the remains were recently relocated. They belong to a well-muscled man, about 5’10” tall, who was about age 50 when he died. The museum has named him Noah. Modern technology, unavailable at the time of the original expedition, leave scholars hopeful that they will be able to gain a great deal of information about humans in that time period. Noah dates to about 4500 B.C.E., about 2,000 years earlier than other surviving remains from that area. You can read more about Noah at Discovery News.

 

Penn Museum Noah Skeleton

 

Now you may be wondering, to yourself “What does a 6,500-year-old body have to do with genealogy? Isn’t that a bit far back in the ahnentafel?” It is not the skeleton itself, but the events surrounding it that are very applicable to genealogy.

Often we get so caught up in the thrill of research that we don’t spend time enough time processing our findings. Think about how many electronic files and pieces of paper you have with your genealogy materials. And how easy it is to misplace something. Have you ever gone through your materials and occasionally found something you hadn’t seen in ages? And this rediscovery can lead to major new avenues of research.

One way speed up this rediscovery is to periodically review your files. Is everything organized properly? Anything misplaced? And regularly process your backlog of files, both electronic and paper. Start by taking everything you are waiting to deal with and putting it all in a single place: a file folder, an archive box, a special folder on your computer.

Once you have everything accumulated, the next step is to look at your calendar. Schedule some time to review the files on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter if it is once a week, once a month, or once a quarter. The important thing is to go through the materials regularly, process them, and put them in their permanent places. This is the best way to minimize problems with lost items, and keep you from repeating the mistakes of the Penn Museum and Noah.

Five Things Star Trek Taught Me About Genealogy

07 Aug 2014

Five

I have always been a bit of a nerd, preferring to spend my time reading and challenging my mind than playing sports. Since I was a young boy I have loved Gene Roddenberry’s  Star Trek universe. Now, many people think that the show was trite, but it has always carried a deeper, metaphorical message. It broke many barriers, with an interracial cast, a lack of cigarette smoking, and other harbingers of the future that have arrived already. And how many television shows can you name that have these accomplishments:

Many of the lessons imparted by captains Kirk, Picard, Sisco, Janeway, Archer, and all the crews of  Star Trek are quite applicable to genealogy.

1. Technology

The communicators from the original featured a screen that flipped up. In the 1990s and early 2000s, they came to life in the flip-phone style of mobile phones at the time. Just as Star Trek foretold the future, genealogists are often early adapters of new technology. And we love to find new and creative uses for it. Take, for example, the Flip Pal scanner, designed with genealogists in mind. It has now become ubiquitous for many of us in our research, scanning images and documents. Be aware of what technological advances you might be able to use in your research, and don’t wait to take advantage of them.

2. Time Travel

Many of Star Trek’s adventures involve time travel (including The City on the Edge of Forever, widely considered to be the best episode of the original series). Sometimes it was accidental, and other times it was intentional, a necessary thing to accomplish the mission. As genealogists, we must employ time travel regularly. One of the most important tenets of genealogy is understanding the time and place in which your ancestors lived. It is only by doing so that you can truly accomplish the best research. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to place our twenty-first century experiences and values on those who lived in a different era.

3. Testing Theories

The mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew was “to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before. . .” Venturing into new territory left the crew uncertain in many situations. They would come up with a plan, test it, and adapt it based on results. This is exactly how genealogical research is conducted. After we come up with theories, we conduct research, evaluate evidence, and weigh our conclusions, constantly testing them and adapting them as we accumulate additional evidence.

4. Teamwork

Starfleet captains understand that individual crew members have different talents. The best results come with utilizing the various talents of different individuals to complete the mission. As genealogists, we are constantly venturing into new territory. Even professionals consult each other constantly when covering new territory. Work with your friends, read articles, take classes, and consult with professionals to have the greatest success in your research.

5. Tenacious

Starfleet crews work together and when it comes to a mission, they never give up. Even when a crewmember was lost, they never left him or her behind (although not so successful with rescuing the red shirts). Genealogists follow their lead. Always look for a new lead, a new angle, or new evidence. Shift your approach to the problem. In 1999, a film spoof of Star Trek appeared in cinemas. Galaxy Quest was a total parody, and had a motto that is totally suitable for genealogists: “Never give up . . .  Never surrender!”

Chasing National Boundaries on the European Map

06 Aug 2014

One of the difficulties in tracing your ancestors back across the pond is discovering exactly where they originated. In America, places of origin for foreign-born individuals most commonly mention the country of origin. On occasion you might get the name of a county or region. While this helps, it still is often not enough.

A major problem with discovering the origins of your European ancestors is the changing map of the continent. While Great Britain and Ireland have been around for awhile, other European countries have a different background. In 1800, for example, Scandinavia was comprised of two nations: Sweden as well as Denmark and Norway (a single country at the time). The French Empire extended down into what is today northern Italy. Sardinia was a separate country. The Ottoman Empire extended north to Hungary. The area that is today Germany and Italy was composed of hundreds of small kingdoms and fiefdoms in loose alliances.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the map was considerable different. France had lost considerable territory to the Swiss Confederation and the independent areas that are now Northern Italy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into existence. Russia controlled much of the territory on the Baltic Sea. The German Confederation had loosely started. Denmark ceded the area of Norway to Sweden, which had, in turn, lost the area of Finland, which became a Grand Duchy of the Tsar of Russia.

The map continues to change throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the 1870s. It is then that the German Confederation and other nearby territories form what we know of today as Germany. The same is true on the Mediterranean, where modern-day Italy was formed (with the Vatican remaining an independent nation, greatly reduced from its original size as the Sates of the church, where it extended as far north as Bologna and Ferrara).

During World War I, the map changed tremendously again. By the end of the war, Poland and the Baltic states were ceded into independent nations. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. Austria and Hungary were independent countries. The new nations of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into existence.

 

Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.

Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Even today, there are some remnants of these border changes. NPR recently had a story about the towns of Baarle-Hertog in Belgium, and Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. The Belgian population is 2,306, while the Dutch population is 6,668. But the towns are not composed of contiguous land, and each has pieces of the other contained within its boundaries. Buildings, including private homes, are often located in both towns, which, of course, means that they are located in two different countries.

Over the course of a century, the area where your ancestor came from may have changed hands multiple times. And the question “Where were you born?” may have received a different response each time it was asked because of it. This is why it is so critical to get down as close as you can to the name of the city, town, or village where your ancestor was born. This can help you get back past the brick walls caused by changes to the geopolitical boundaries where they lived.

Danger in the Graveyard

05 Aug 2014

Dick Eastman ran a very tragic story last week about a Tennessee cemetery. An individual had used a wire brush to “clean” gravestones. He wanted to photograph the stones to add them to the Find A Grave website. In his ignorance, he did extensive damage to the stones, rendering some of the inscriptions totally illegible. Some of these damaged stones date back to the late-eighteenth century (the church was founded in 1780). Even more remarkably, he did so without the permission of the church to whom the cemetery belonged.

There are all sorts of purported methods for cleaning grave markers. Included in these are:

  • Ammonia
  • Baking Soda
  • Bleach
  •  Cornstarch

None of these should ever be used under any circumstances. Nor should you ever use any kind of abrasive, tools, or anything with a firm pressure. They can all cause permanent damage, potentially destroying the very inscriptions you are trying preserve.

In addition to cleaning, individuals try all sorts of methods for reading inscriptions on grave markers that might be eroded and difficult to read. Among the items people use:

  • Chalk
  • Flour
  • Shaving Cream

None of these should ever be used. The chemicals in shaving cream can do serious damage to a gravestone. In addition to using chalk directly on a grave marker, some people use chalk and paper to create rubbings of the original stone. Be aware that this can also cause damage the stones. In some localities, such as Massachusetts, it is now illegal to make gravestone rubbings.

The two best friends you have for reading gravestones are water, and a reflective surface, such as a mirror. I routinely bring a couple of bottles of water in my bag when I visit a cemetery. often the simple act of putting some water on the stone makes some of the etched words easier to read. I’ve even brought out letters and numbers that were completely illegible.

A mirror or other highly reflective surface works well also. This tool is best used on a bright, sunny day. Use the mirror to reflect light across the face of the stone. The shadows it creates may illuminated the illegible inscription. I’ve also used photographer’s reflectors to achieve the same effect. They are flexible and as they are not made of glass, there is no risk or dangerous breakage if you drop them. You can get them inexpensively through photo supply stores or Amazon.

The man who damaged those gravestones is now facing possible criminal charges, a Class E felony carrying a prison term of not less than one year and up to six years, plus financial penalties up to $3,000. Think twice before you make his mistake. For more information about working with cemeteries and gravestones, visit the Association for Gravestone Studies.

Gravestone Studies