Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Gordon Surname:
Scottish? Or German?

An opening like the title, above, seems to introduce a preposterous question. Ask any number of people their opinion on the matter, and the answer you're likely to get would be, "Scottish. Of course!"

Back when I first began this exploration of my husband's Gordon roots, the only resources at handother than the rare email exchange, like the longstanding relationship I mentioned developing with one Gordon researcherwere books. And in one book in particularfocusing on the Gordon family from precisely the location where our Gordons had once settledeven that Gordon family couldn't quite agree on the origin of their progenitor's surname.

You can hardly blame the innocent bystander answering such a question with an emphatic, "Scottish." Taking a look at surname histories for the name Gordon puts that location front and center of all possibilities.

For instance, in a confusing summary, dubbed Gordon a "habitational name," and explained it likely referred to those living in Berwickshirehistorically part of Scotland, though by 1482 considered part of England, yet later lying partly in either jurisdiction.

Further explanation showed, however, that Scotland did not have a lock on that surname. Of course, one likely reason is the migration patterns witnessed between Scotland and Ireland. However, that is not the only spread of the surname. A similar place nameGourdonmay have come from Normandy or another French location. In addition, the name has popped up in Spanish history as well as in Basque language documents, all ostensibly referring to surnames drawn from place names. To add to the puzzle, apparently there are Jewish descendants from the region of Belarus claiming that same surname.

None of that, however, helps me find any explanation for the contentionby members of his own family, no less!that our family's progenitor, John Gordon, emigrated to Maryland not from Scotland, but from Germany.

I was fortunate to obtain a copy of a slim genealogical volume entitled The Gordons of Greene County Pennsylvania, which laid out the case for the disagreement about John Gordon's origin. Although my copy doesn't state the author, publisher, nor date it was printed, I've found attributionsnowonline, giving credit to Ellen M. Gordon-Dye and dating the volume to 1908.

In the book, the author jumps right into the explanation on the first page:
In so far as there are any traditions at all on the subject, it seems to be agreed that [John Gordon] either spoke a foreign language or at all events talked with an unusual and strongly marked accentbut as to his nationality a striking difference of opinion has existed. The Gordons of Greene County, Pennsylvania, have strongly maintained that he was a German; the Gordons of Ohio, with two exceptions, have been equally insistent that he was Scotch.

Within the first chapter of the book, there are some pages in which, other than one or two lines of text, the rest is filled with footnotes, detailing quotes from family letters with assertions and reasons why one side of the argument or the other was the correct explanation. Though one side of the story or the other would then, obviously, seem to be incorrect, each side felt very strongly that their version was the truth of the matter.

Perhaps the concluding compromisestill visible today on the property of the old Gordon homestead near Waynesboro, Pennsylvaniacomes closest to the truth. From a monument erected ("recently," according to the 1908 Gordon family history book) in memory of the man considered the American family's patriarch:
John Gordon
Ancestor of the
Gordon Family
of Greene County.
In Scotland A.D. 1739.
Removed to Germany,
and Thence Emigrated
to America.
March 29, 1816.
Aged 77 Years.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

So, Who Was She, Anyhow?

Sometimes, it takes only an incidental occurrence to trigger a volley of memories. I'm not really sure what pushed me over the edge, back at the beginning of this week, to go on such a rant about the changes in the genealogical research world over the past two decades. I don't regret making the observations I did, and I'm certainly alarmed about the effect of this incremental change. Bottom line, though: despite the angst, I'm still glad to be pointed back in the direction of reviewing my oldand I mean oldresearch notes. It's beenand still will becometime well spent.

All this sturm und drang wasn't for naught, though. It brought me face to face with lots of unfinished research business in a family line certainly worth pursuing. And it reminded me that I really hadn't ever satisfactorily uncovered an answer to my question: whatever became of that fascinating researcher with whom I had spent years corresponding over our mutual genealogical goals?

You would think, of all people, someone trained in genealogical research could come up with an answer to a question like this. After all, the last I had heard from my fellow family researcher, before a long and ominous silence, was that she had been recuperating from a stroke. A small one, she assured me. And for a while, it seemed we were back on track, alternately regarding or discarding our hypotheses on how various members of one particular surname might have fit within that one extended familyno "collaterals" barred.

When that long silence stretched from months to years, though, I wondered whether my friend had been struck by "the big one"another episode rendering her incapacitated. Or worse.

We genealogists can find these answers, can't we? Believe me, even assuming the worst and searching through my subscription newspaper services for obituaries, I found not a word about her. Which only made me wish she would write again. Maybe with a different email address. Yeah, surely that was the problem...

There's no shortage of information online about this delightful research partner. I mentioned before that she was a college professor, specializing in Russian history. It turns out that her doctoral dissertationa study of a Russian author, human rights activist and dissident during the reign of Alexander IIIwas published, as was her more politically-minded master's thesis on an earlier era of Russian history.

At the point of her retirement, this well-trained researcher had turned her attention to a different sort of historical account: that of her own family. The reason will sound all too familiar to many of us. As she mentioned in a statement forever frozen in time in the Rootsweb archives,
I found a short barebones outline of my ancestors which was among my mother’s papers. After I retired, I decided to create a family history since little was really known about my own direct line of descent....

As it turned out, the line this researcher chose to pursue was that of the very progenitor from which my husband also descended: the family of John and Mary Helen Duke Gordon, an extended family which, by the 1830s, had emigrated from Pennsylvania to Perry County, Ohio—home, ever since then, of my mother-in-law's family. Perhaps now you sense my thrill at having made the acquaintance of such a one as shared my specific research goal.

Sad to say, for the last few years, my Gordon project has languished as I attended to the many other lines demanding research attention. Perhaps it was in reaction to missing this research companion. Who knows. It might be a good thing that it all is resident on a computer which threatens to quit working any day now. Procrastinators need deadlines.

What of my disappearing research friend, though? Not finding that telltale obituary, I toyed with the idea of writing a letter to her last known address, in hopes a sympathetic family member might respond. After all, I had checked all my subscriptions with no trace of her name. Ditto Google.

One more thought prompted me to try againthis time, pulling up the "Recent Newspaper Obituaries" section at Though my friend always included her maiden name in her correspondence, when I searched this time, I omitted it and just tried first and last name.

Sad that I found it, but relieved to put that question to rest, I retrieved the verdict: Ruth Gordon Hastie succumbed to a subsequent stroke and passed away on September 24, 2012. May I add to the many condolences my belated wishes that she not only rest in peace, but rest in the remembrance of many who appreciated the person she was.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Going Social? Or Losing It?

Connectivity became the buzzword in a decade that ushered in the ability to "go social" online.

Being "social" has never been a foreign concept to genealogical researcherswe've a long history of cooperative efforts, as witnessed by the myriad mailing lists, message boards and forums of bygone decades.

As I ponder the changes I've noticed, just from going back and reading old emails from fellow researchers from ten to twenty years ago, the ironic detail that stands out to me is the inverse relationship between ease of access to communications choices and likelihood that any two researchers would engage in lengthy exchanges regarding genealogical discoveries.

There's no doubt that there weren't many of us online sharing genealogical insights, over twenty years ago. And yet, with those limited means of access, those who connected could sometimes look forward to continued volleys of conversation, sharing data and the documents to back them up.

Now, we're inundated with multitude means for connecting with fellow researchers. Indeed, the specificity of connection can be mind-boggling. Consider this: in one of her posts at Genealogy à la carte, Gail Deverone of my favorite Canadian bloggersposted her finding aid for nearly four hundred Facebook pages (in either French or English) dedicated to helping researchers find information on their Canadian ancestors.

You think that's extreme? In her post, Gail referred her readers to another file, this one assembled by Katherine R. Willson, which includes over eight thousand Facebook pages (limited to English language resources) related to genealogy. That's a lot of people talking genealogy.

Or so it seems...

In the meantime, I hear moans about declining in-person attendance at genealogical events (especially at the local level). I hear people complaining that no one answers their emails even inquiring about something as basic as discovered DNA matches (that they've already paid to discover).

While the thought did occur to me that the underlying force behind this shift might have been the simple answer of demographic changes, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the difference is owing more to cultural changesthe kinds of "environmental" shifts that occur so incrementally that we hardly notice them at all. Among these culprits might be those incessant words of advice to bloggers to post "simple" articles that can be easily scanned. Or the multi-tasking mask that provides the aura that we can do more than one thing at the same time (albeit each completed equally ineptly).

The snap, superficial exchanges that seem to be the hallmark of modern culture are the very elements that beg us, as genealogists, to become counter-cultural change agents. The plea to not go with the flow. To be the leaders of intentional change. To seek out the better, more beneficial way.

I hate to admit it, but I sometimes see as detrimental to our genealogical well-being the very resources of this Internet age that we are championing: the growing commercial concerns that make it so easy to find the documentation and other verifications that move our research forward so rapidly. Lulled into the complacency that comes with such ease of discovery, how can we shake ourselves awake again? Not by ditching the progress that is, after all, so beneficial. But by integrating it with the methods and systems that worked for us in the pastthe processes of genealogy that once brought us those social interchanges between cooperative researchers.

That level of communication exchange may, actually, be a universe unfamiliar to some now amidst our researching ranks. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't share that vision with othersand work to reshape behaviors to include the benefits of the past with the technological prowess the present has afforded us. These peer-driven cooperative efforts, in one way, can inspire us to get out in the researching world and exercise our own research "muscles"and to not let our powers of reason and discovery atrophy in the armchair effort to merely chase those virtual shaky leaves. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Demographic Shift

I've heard it said more than once that attendance at local genealogical societies dropped off at just about the same time as online organizations such as gained ascendancy. Sometimes, I've taken comments like that as sour grapes: groups sorely in need of a clue about how to join the twenty-first century bemoaning their condition instead of doing something about it.

Now that I've taken a few days to wander down the memory lane of archived emails exchanged with researchers back one and two decades ago, I'm wondering whether there might be something to that old harangue. It seems as if the people who were smitten with the genealogy bug back thenthe very folks most likely to attend society meetings of those past yearswere a different breed than those in our ranks today. The tenacity of the chase, the attention to detail, the consideration of multiple variables in a search for just one missing ancestor would be resplendent in not just one letter, but in a series of follow-up communications with other genealogy enthusiast I have met over the years. Looking back at these two way conversations, it was evident that what was unfolding was a sense of teamwork combined with the wonder and enthusiasm over the process of genealogical research.

It was a conversationa volley between two equally-engaged parties, both fully absorbed by the goal of solving a mystery. There were notes to be shared, copies of documents to exchange, critique of the possibilitiesboth pro and conregarding the hypothesis under consideration at the moment. And once that puzzle was solved, you know there would be another one to capture the attention with the next note.

Fast forward a decade or two. Now, I hear people complain that they can't even get someone to answer an email about being a possible match on their DNA testing results. Nobody seems to talk with each otherat least via email or other message systems. To listen to the few complaints I hear, you'd think nobody reaches out and connects with other researchers, at all.

Have we made a shift from a participatory endeavor to a one-way, spoon-fed level of communication? The highlights of the genealogical pursuitand note here, I'm referring to genealogy as an avocation, not a professionseem to be online suppliers of digitized material, combined with a consumer-focused supply of one-way lectures delivered (thankfully, at least face to face) at conferences or via webinars. We have shifted from participants to consumers in this brave new world of genealogical pursuit. The two-way street of sharing resources and information in a participatory model has collapsed into an expert-driven, uni-directional information flow.

In puzzling over what might have been behind this shift, I wondered if the change in demographics might play a large part in this. After all, the very thing that prompted my foray back into an old computer's email archivesthe likely death of a researcher with whom I had previously enjoyed a lively researching teamworkshouted that possibility.

I'm not an avid number cruncher, so don't look to see hard numbers here. But it certainly makes sense that, in the near-twenty years since I first started dabbling online with genealogical resources, some researchers will have passed off the scene and some will have grown up, realized they loved this stuff, and jumped in wholeheartedly.

Another possibility emerges: with the giant participants now dwarfing the rest of us in this playing fieldand I refer here to commercial entities such as and Find My Pastthey bring with them the marketing expertise and the financial backing to interject changes into the genealogical research game. Those participating twenty years ago might have done so for the sheer love of what they were doingbecause they loved watching an older relative make family history discoveries, or did it because their church urged them to participate, or (like me) because they just felt drawn to the subject for inexplicable reasons. Now? It's just as likely that someone entered the fray only because they were touched by a commercial.

And there's nothing wrong with that. We need to welcome all newcomers. In fact, I thrive on working with genealogical "seekers"those newbies who want to know how to get started. For me, there's nothing more rewarding than teaching some of the beginners' classes I've been privileged to present.

But people always come with baggagethe expectations, customs, habits, tendencies they've carried through life. Genealogists who grew up connecting with far-away friends and family by writing letters because they were horrified at the exorbitant cost of a long distance telephone call will approach teamwork on their research projects much differently than would someone facile with social media and technology-driven resources.

I still can't help wondering, though: why the shift? Is it just because one group has aged off the scene, only to be replaced with another demographic grown up in a different context? Or has the population itself undergone other changes, regardless of age?

What is the possibility that the companies which have become our champions of genealogical resources have fostered a different research paradigmand more to the point, a different set of behavioral expectations for those who wish to participate in this research endeavor? Have the very resources we've welcomed turned us into passive, point-and-click consumers of genealogical material served up by experts, rather than past decades' active pursuers of genealogical answers?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Sociology of Genealogy

Noun.  The systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings.

At least, that's according to Merriam-Webster, the company whose dictionary-publishing lineage stretches back to the 1843 purchase of the rights to Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language.

You may not have thought of genealogists as an "organized group of human beings" having any sort of "collective behavior." Granted, we do assemble ourselves into genealogical Societies—both local and national—but for the most part, these are much less formal associations than corporate structures fettered by ponderous legal restrictions. Who would want to launch a "systematic study" of the development and ongoing progress of such a loosely-knit group of people?

I do. After reading through pages and pages of emails I had exchanged with researchers from what is clearly a bygone era in the world of genealogy, I'm certainly giving it some serious thought. What I am reading has reminded me of the way things used to be among us researchers of the 1990s and earliest years of this century. Well beyond nostalgia for what seemed to be a golden era of researching—shaped by the letter-writing habits of bygone generations but supercharged by the exciting dawn of a computer age of genealogy—my curiosity has been piqued by what I'm recalling. These reminiscing moments have pulled back the curtains covering such incremental changes, over the years, and let me compare two very different eras under the same "modern" canopy of time.

I'm not really sure what produced the change, but this experience has prompted the question, and it's taken hold in those wondering-prone pockets of my rabbit-trail-induced thought patterns. Scatter-shot, memories about researchers I've known pop into my mind. I realize just how educated, talented and multi-faceted were some of these people I've come to know through my forays into genealogical pursuits. I've met doctors, lawyers, and college professors of various academic backgrounds. I've met lay-scientists and -historians whose avocation has been attended to with as much rigorous application as that of some professionals.

If you were to attend a genealogy conference this Spring, and run into speakers like Judy Russell or Steve Morse, you might assume you were standing among the giants of the field. And you would be correct. It would not normally be commonplace to meet adjunct professors from one of the nation's leading law schools—nor federal prosecutors, whether before the bench or in less intimidating surroundings. Or electrical engineers whose industry-changing design has become their occupational legacy.

The list of talented speakers goes on. Read the bios on any conference's speaker roster, and you'll see what I mean. But that is not only at the national or even state level. Just last week, our own genealogical society hosted a much sought-after speaker who turns out, in addition to her genealogical accomplishments, to hold a Ph.D. in physics.

Thinking these things over, one might assume that individuals like these are a class apart—a special subset of all genealogists, the ones who circulate on a much higher plane, breathing air far rarer than the common genealogical researcher. Perhaps that is so, today. But I'm not sure.

You see, in those days I'm remembering, back at the start of the nexus between genealogy and a nascent computer age, I discovered the same effect among the researchers with whom I enjoyed such email friendships as I mentioned yesterday. Back then, it wasn't the elite who had interesting backgrounds, glamorous accomplishments, or enviable resumes. It could be the person you just emailed, asking for details on a possible match in your pedigree chart.

In my mind, the question that is just screaming to be answered is: so, what made the difference? Why, twenty years later, don't we bump into these same people, as if they were just average Joes (except for a highly-honed fascination with genealogy)? Did the collective behavior of our organized assemblage of enthusiasts change? Was it just a change in modes of interaction? Or did the group, itself, undergo some changes? If so, what outside forces might have made the impact that initiated such a change?

Those, apparently, are the kinds of questions that would be examined in a sociological studyif any sociologist would consider those who self-identify as genealogists to be part of a group.

Well, I'm no sociologist. And it might be argued that, as loosely defined as the realm of genealogists might be defined, we're no organized group. But I still think pursuing those questions might lead to some interesting observations.   

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Way Things Were

"Long, long ago and in a really distant galaxy..."

So began Dr. Brian Leverich's abbreviated history of how Rootsweb came to be—that 1998 explanation of the pioneering genealogy website that evolved from a world of listservs and file archives and antiquated protocols. If you have never read this significant snapshot of online genealogy's history, get yourself informed. It's well worth the brief moment's read.

I don't know what the connectivity quotient was for the genealogy community, pre-dawn of the computer age. I suppose it is possible that, whilst crawling around on library floors in vain attempts to read illegible call numbers on inconveniently-placed genealogical reference books, there might have been some camaraderie between researchers, but in the age of shushing librarians, I doubt it. It was only after people realized that the utility of computers reached so far beyond the vision of the computer geeks of that decade that the common, everyday genealogy aficionado jumped on board to expand research horizons.

But we did so much more than that, in that pioneering decade in genealogy: we discovered we could talk with each other about our current research projects. We could share our findings. We could haggle with conviction over enigmatic records—or commiserate over the outright missing ones!—with people whom we had never met, face to face.

We had a community—a virtual community—that sprang up around our ability to access each other online. Granted, it was clunky, inelegant and sometimes cumbersome to manipulate, but we found ways to discover, meet and talk with fellow researchers seeking our very own family lines, or checking out the context of local history of the places where our forebears once lived.

The conversations that took place in these email havens, lists and, later, online forums, stretched far beyond the one hundred forty character limit of Twitter, yet couldn't even include visuals—and often concluded with promises of follow-up via the now-disdained "snail mail."

And a funny thing happened in that world during the pre-dawn of Ancestry: we became hard and fast friends with people whom we had never laid eyes on. Ever.

Just last night, since I had been thinking of it ever since deciding to revisit an antiquated project on my fossilized to-do list, I booted up my dinosaur computer—you know, the wood-burning one—and pulled up my history of emails with specific researchers. The virtual memory lane that one task escorted me down was a long one, stretching back to conversations in emails exchanged well over twelve years ago. And that's just the archives captured on that computer. There was yet another computer with as long a legacy going before that one.

Besides the emails, there were mailing lists and message boards. Long before I even knew what I was into, I had found ways to sign up for "lists" from the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania. Someone at each place with just enough computer savvy to do so had set up lists for genealogy fans. It seemed the idea spread like wildfire: if someone could build the mechanism, people would find a way to get to it. There just seems to be something inherent in genealogy that made us want to share our notes, pick each other's brains, and be generous with our resources. What an esprit de corps.

Once groups had figured out ways to format message boards, that decidedly became the place to be to let all this natural proclivity flourish.

Ironic that, as computer capabilities expanded and resources became more sophisticated, the advent of such supercharged researching resources as—and even free sites like—seemed to peak at just the moment when the social aspect of genealogy seemed to decline. It was as if the tools of modern genealogical research, aided and abetted by the organization and efficiency of such companies, reverted genealogy into a solitary pursuit once again.

I hardly engage in those extended email volleys with fellow researchers, concerning a specific family line or historic county, as I had in times past. The extensive analyses that once took place, either one-on-one or in small group communications—the stuff I have archived in my email files from years ago—can hardly compare to the sometimes bland, one-off exchanges that only occasionally waft my way, now. It's been a real education, just unfolding those old messages and reviewing their content. It sets me to pondering just what happened to change the course of collective research progress in a realm that, for a golden moment, seemed the epitome of a promising collaborative future for genealogy.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Standing on the Shoulders
of Those Who Have Gone Before

It may seem a strange project to select—the one I mentioned yesterday about transferring genealogical data from my antiquated XP-driven computer to my sleek, updated version. I mean, why not just start from scratch? Why not just rely on what can be obtained through the online resources so handily at our fingertips now? It does sound like an unnecessarily messy project.

I have a response to such an objection, of course. And it may sound somewhat like the reasoning behind utilizing those hundred-year-old genealogies still languishing on some library bookshelves: there is the possibility that we may learn something while benefiting from the hard work of those who have gone on before us. If nothing else, a project to reconcile an old fashioned research project with the multitude of resources now at our fingertips might yield a better product: a corrected version, now complete with documentation, that blends the work of the past with the insights of newly digitized records of the present.

There is, however, another reason I want to plod through this tedious process. And that "reason" has a name and a face. Not to mention, a story. Whenever those elements get added to a research project, for me, it heralds a turning point in the level of interest and investment of effort. It makes the whole thing more personalized.

Explaining all this will have to take me through a history lesson of online experiences in genealogy—albeit a brief history as, after all, we are only talking about a process which evolved from the 1990s onward. The explanation will also require that I introduce you to a fellow genealogical researcher who was quite thorough in her approach to discovering as many descendants as possible of the one family line we both shared. And all that will unfold, as we make our way through the upcoming week.

Any time you share a deep fascination in a specific topic with a friend, it makes for a special relationship. In genealogical research, it also supercharges the effort to find those missing family members of bygone generations.

Now that I'm going back and reviewing all those research notes I and this researching friend had exchanged over nearly a decade, I'm realizing what a gift that cooperative effort really was. And yet, as online friendships tend to be, it had its illusory side, which sadly manifested when the incorporeal and intangible could not possibly provide the connections one would expect in a face to face relationship.

And so, when a sudden health problem engulfed this researcher's life in a crisis, while her family rushed to do what was necessary, all I could tell, from my end of the ether, was that my emails were no longer being answered. After an interminable months-long silence, a very weakened friend did send a reply to tell me she had suffered a stroke—but assured me she was on the mend.

We "talked" a bit more, in that online way of sending and receiving emails and files, but after several months more, there was another long silence. This time, there was no message at the end to assure me she was still there.

Of course, my researching friend may still be there—somewhere on the other side of the country—but too ill to carry on the work that was the delight of her retirement years. That, however, I tend to doubt.

In retrospect, I realize what value there was in the material that was shared, and often wonder whatever became of all the multitude of files of raw data still waiting to be transformed into usable form. While I hope this woman's family didn't just chuck the material, like so many pages of scratch paper, I realize I have been gifted with much of this researcher's work. Even in the segments still requiring much fleshing out with verification—and in some cases, having only the bare bones of an outline of some parts of the family line—I have at least a smattering of what had been uncovered.

I realize I can build on this gift, even if I no longer have a connection with this talented and thorough researcher. As my husband is so fond of saying when he cautions young people not to just toss aside the insights of older generations, I can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me. While this researcher's work didn't come to me in the polished format of a hard cover volume, her work was just as thoroughly crafted. It is a gift—but only if I utilize what I've been given.

Despite the old format in which that gift currently resides, transcribed onto an antiquated version of Family Tree Maker on a computer built to run on a far-outdated version of Windows, this woman's work is still a viable contribution to the genealogical community—not to mention, to this particular family line. Transferring it to an updated version of genealogical software, plus verifying what may be done with digitized documentation available to us now, online, is the most reasonable way I can think of to honor those whose work has been of such benefit to me.

When I think of all the emails that passed between us, I want to go back and review them in light of what can be accessed online today. Maybe a reminder of past brick walls will prompt me to see what new material has come to light that will help skirt the research impediment of previous decades.

And when I remember that this was not an isolated process, this exchange of research ideas with one researcher, but was multiplied several times over with several family lines, I realize I've built my own archives of research history—a resource that may yield rich results, if only I can systematically review the holdings, and then put those findings to good use.

While it seems there has never been a better time to begin one's quest to find our roots, for those of us who didn't begin with this season's genealogy commercials, we can also lay claim to a treasure trove of research hints in our own rights, in the body of shared files and communications with like-minded genealogists. Just like benefiting from a legacy, we can only reap these riches if we recognize what's already in store and analyze that material with fresh eyes—and today's more powerful research tools.  
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