Thursday, May 28, 2015

Something in Common

There’s nothing like being contacted by a distant cousin to rev up the search engines on a previously-forsaken line of research pursuit. After exhausting all possibilities for further progress following our research trip to Ireland last fall, I had set aside my work on the Stevens, Tully and related lines long before Christmas. I confess: I prefer progress to head banging on genealogical brick walls.

Now, prompted by a distant cousin’s recent contact, I’m returning to pursue those Irish roots on my husband’s side of the family. It sure would be handy to find a way to corroborate connections via DNA testing. A handy device for that—at least, based on my experience with my own autosomal test results at Family Tree DNA—has been the “In Common With” sorting option on their Family Finder program.

That’s the handy crossed double arrows button on the dashboard at FTDNA that I’ve used when working on my own lines. If you remember, I have a half brother who was willing to test. We share the paternal side of our family. Generally, on my autosomal DNA results, if I want to eliminate results from my maternal side and hone in on my paternal ancestors, I can go to my brother’s entry on my readout and click “In Common With” to eliminate all my maternal matches—and believe me, there are hundreds of them. Poof! Gone with one keystroke.

When it comes to my husband’s DNA test results, I have no such handy device. While I have confirmed two matches on his maternal side, each of those matches is too far removed from him to whisk away all maternal connections. I need something more all-encompassing before I can achieve anything as sweeping as that. Either I’ll need to talk a very close relative on one side of the family into testing—not, obviously, anyone at the level of sister, though—or at least confirm several matches specific to his paternal side to be able to isolate certain lines within the DNA results.

Granted, there will surely come a time when Family Tree DNA offers another helpful sale on their tests, and I’ll want to snag that opportunity to talk family members into testing. But it would also be handy to find someone who has already tested and is a close enough relationship to help with comparisons.

It does seem tedious, though, to go through these hundreds of matches, shopping for that perfect specimen. The great preponderance of matches we’ve seen already seems to be at the fourth cousin level or beyond—not very helpful in locating the candidate I’m seeking.

All I want—and maybe, in time for Father’s Day, if FTDNA follows suit on its traditional sales pattern—is someone in the family with whom my husband’s paternal line shares something in common. And a willingness to volunteer as participant in this genetic genealogy pursuit.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Someone Did Want That Picture

When I first started writing A Family Tapestry, a seasoned blogger popped up out of nowhere and became not only my inspiration but a wonderful mentor, as well. Among her other online properties, one was a blog dedicated to the worthy mission—at least in genealogists’ eyes—to find and rescue abandoned old photographs and reunite them with family members.

While I was infinitely jealous of the fact that she was located in the far northern reaches of our country—in “Minnesnowda,” as she likes to call it—instead of being out and about, scouring the antique shops in the Southern hometowns of my ancestors, I was impressed with what she is accomplishing. To date, she has posted 1,914 rescued photographs on her blog and returned 118 of them to grateful family members.

Perhaps you already recognize, by this description, the accomplishments witnessed on the blog known as Forgotten Old Photos by the near-anonymous blogger who calls herself Far Side of Fifty. Perhaps you, too, have learned a lot about the photographs of the mid to late 1800s and beyond, just by following her daily posts and watching the scramble as readers attempt to identify living family members of her mystery photograph subjects.

Granted, having a subscriber base well over 1700 helps the reunification process—yet another aspect about which I must confess harboring feelings of envy. Sometimes, in struggling over the photographs left behind by my own family’s ancestors, I wish I could just hand the pictures over to Far Side and let her choreograph the magic that occurs on her site with such regularity.

However, I am me, and she is, well, phenomenal. I can only hope to someday achieve a smidgeon of that reunification success rate.

Last night, though, I received a comment on A Family Tapestry that made me perk up and renew that dream of becoming Far Side’s “Mini Me.” The note was concerning a post from June, 2013—about a photograph from the mostly-unlabeled Bean family collection that I never could just bring myself to throw away.

“Someone might want this picture” would be the thought going through my mind, every time I sternly lectured myself on the foolishness of keeping that hopeless collection of faces from my now-long-deceased first husband’s grandfather’s siblings. But I guess I had a soft spot in my heart for the crotchety Aunt Leona and Uncle Bill. And the photographs stayed on in the old box I received them in after their passing, back in the 1980s.

You can imagine how I perked up when this note came through my email inbox:
Hi. This is my grandfather, Leo Walter Harrington from Tonapol.

The message went on to read,
My grandfather went to Stanford and studied law. He was born on October 15th, 1896.

That year—1896—was the same year Bill Bean was born in Redwood City, California, not far from Palo Alto, where the Bean family later lived and in which Stanford University is located. Though I have yet to find out how Bill met Leo Harrington, perhaps now I will have a chance to learn—and, of course, like my inspiration, Far Side of Forgotten Old Photos, to return the photograph of a young Leo Walter Harrington to a family member who might like to have it.

Leo Harrington from Tonapol while attending Stanford University California as law student

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Gearing Up For Team #scgs2015

One week from tomorrow, I’ll be hopping in the car and making the marathon drive down south for my favorite genealogy event of the year: the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree.

Don’t think that means I’m packing, this far in advance. I tend to do that sort of prep work all in one swoop, the night before heading out.

There is one aspect I am attending to this early, though: planning my networking strategy. After all, one of the virtues of attending conferences in person is meeting people. Otherwise, why endure a six hour road trip? I could just stay home and check out live streaming of key sessions in the comfort of my own living room.

That, however, wouldn’t offer the opportunity to get to know my fellow genealogy enthusiasts—and certainly would not afford me the chance for face time with my favorite geneabloggers. We all spend enough time connecting online, as it is. It’s good to switch things up and go the personal route sometimes. I may be a wallflower, but I’m certainly not a couch potato.

So, when I read that another geneablogger is going to be at Jamboree, I send her a tweet to make initial contact—or an email, if we’re not connected via Twitter. I’ll never forget the time I learned, through a blogger’s post after Jamboree, that we had both been in the same sessions but hadn’t realized it! I don’t want to come away from this four day extravaganza (including DNA Day) without meeting with people I know from blogging and research connections.

Granted, those are online connections. You and I might spend a few virtual minutes together each day—at the very least, tag teaming it—over the posts at A Family Tapestry, but if I were to cross paths with you in real life, it’s quite likely we’d both be oblivious to that fact. Unless, that is, we had some way to be alerted to that detail and to then introduce ourselves.

This is our chance to give each other that heads up.

Besides—okay, you shrinking violets out there, back me up on this!—how many of us are quite handy at walking into a room full of strangers, sticking out our hand at random and shouting, “HI! MY NAME IS….”

Isn’t it so much nicer to discover who the other person is, ahead of time? To make plans to find that person and grab a moment to chat?

I’ll never forget the time I realized I was sitting across the aisle from fellow blogger Melanie Frick: it was after tweeting a comment about the Jamboree session I was attending. I had used that year’s Jamboree hashtag; right away, she saw it. The inevitable follow-up:
            Where are you?

That is how we met. If not that way, I’d likely had never known she was there.

I would much rather meet people that way, than to shoulder my way through an army of strangers in hopes of connecting with someone I’ve never seen in real life. Yeah, I know: shy and retiring. But I have lots of company.

I once went to a place for lunch, a restaurant in the Bay Area whose cheeky menu invited comments—even complaints. “You have a mouth; use it” was their tag line.

Now we’re in the twenty first century. That motto may as well read, “You have a Twitter account; use it.”

At least, I do; it’s @jacqistevens. If you have a Twitter account too, and are planning to attend Jamboree, why not do two things during this week leading up to Jamboree Day One:
  • Send me a tweet saying you’ll be there too, and
  • Use the Twitter hashtag #scgs2015 for all your tweets during Jamboree.

Consider yourself deputized to become a part of Team #scgs2015. In today’s world of social media, anyone can, really. Together, we’ll not only blanket the social media genea-sphere with our take on Jamboree proceedings, but send out a signal that says, “Hey, I’m here, too!”

That way, you and I and everyone else there can connect on a more personal level. After all, if we’re not connecting while we’re all there together, we may as well have taken it all in from the couch-potato hermitage of our own homes.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Day For Remembering

By the time you read this post, an army of flag-bearers will have blanketed every national cemetery in the country—and a number of grave sites in other cemeteries as well—with the Red, White and Blue in preparation for the Memorial Day weekend remembrances. True, the honorees of this weekend are specifically those who have made their supreme sacrifice in service to their country, and many of us haven’t had to bear the burden of that empty place at our dinner tables, or growing up without the dad or sibling who will never be coming home again.

In our family, it takes a bit of searching through our family tree before we find anyone who would rightfully be remembered on this national holiday. There are some—like my husband’s first cousin once removed, Joseph Edward McGonagle, Staff Sergeant of the 563rd Bomber Squadron 388th Bomber Group, shot down in Europe on March 8, 1944—whom our living relatives personally remember. There are others—such as the Civil War soldiers I’ve uncovered in my most recent project to research my maternal family lines—who have been commemorated since the inception of Decoration Day traditions.

Though today isn’t their day, those surviving family members who have served in the military and those who are veterans of past wars still have my gratitude, as well. Though they may have escaped death during their service, it seems as if many of them returned home with Death strapped to their backpacks. Even those who survived carried the internal scars of what they bore “over there.” As I follow the research trail through the various extended lines of both my husband’s and my own family trees, I can’t help but notice the life spans of many of those veterans, shortened by ten to twenty years from that of their own siblings. No matter which way they returned home, they paid a price for what they endured.

If you have a family member whose sacrifice is being commemorated today, you have my highest gratitude. There are no words that could adequately express what that service represents—only a perpetual call to demonstrate our debt through our humble gestures of remembrance.

Above: "The March of Time," 1896 oil on canvas by Henry Sandham, depicting a parade of veterans of the U.S. Civil War during Decoration Day. Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Splat on the Proverbial Brick Wall

Is there any wiggle room, pressed hard up against the genealogical brick wall? That’s what I’m about to find out. Hopefully, this inquiry will deliver me to the felicitous date when the National Library of Ireland releases its digitized version of Irish Catholic Church records to the virtual world, supplying me with a fresh supply of potential documentation to build my case about my husband's Irish ancestry.

I’m not so sure, though. The current promised release date for the digitization project is July 8. And we haven’t yet escaped the clutches of May. That would make for a pretty long wiggle.

When I last left researching my husband’s Irish family lines, we had concluded a wonderful—yet exhausting—research trip to counties Cork, Tipperary, and Kerry leading up to a week at the books in Dublin. Once home, I had transcribed and muddled over my nearly-illegible notes, taken in utter haste during that three week trip. (Three weeks may seem like a lot for time on the road, but when it comes to searching for genealogical records, it never seems to be enough time.)

That I was bumping into a brick wall of time-restricted availability of records was not lost on me. Not only were we limited by our time in Ireland—those precious few days in that three week period—but we were also confined by the limitations of what was available on Catholic families living in that former realm of the United Kingdom.

It did, indeed, feel as if I had gone “splat” on that brick wall.

It is amazing how one phone call can resurrect hopes. And just one week ago, that is exactly what happened. Now, I’m re-entering the sharing stage with a distant cousin, eager to compare notes on our mutual family’s history. All we have to go on, really, are a few hand-written notes stowed in keepsake boxes passed down through the generations. We may have some of the very few written remembrances of those family members. The wonder is that they corroborate each other.

The person on the other end of the phone last week is the sister of the third cousin who shared baptismal records for Johanna Tully Ryan. Those, if you recall from this old post, aligned with the baptismal note we subsequently found for my husband’s great-grandfather, John Tully. Of course, there are more items to compare, which is what our upcoming project will likely entail.

That is what launched me on a new course of inspection: wondering just how my progress has been going on the autosomal DNA testing for my husband’s family.

Yes (groan), more number crunching in our future. Consider today’s post a baseline report.

When I subscribed to, I decided that, rather than recreate the same family tree I have resident on my desktop program, I would separate out each of our parents’ surnames. Thus, I now have four separate family trees on Ancestry, one representing the family tree of each of our four parents. Comparing them to my husband’s DNA results will be somewhat of a problem, as I don’t have any handy devices—like my half-brother’s DNA results on my side—to separate out the maternal from the paternal. So, while I can track my progress on each tree—Stevens or Flowers on my husband’s side—I can’t separate the count through his DNA results.

With that caveat, here is where we stand at this re-beginning. The Stevens tree, itself, now holds 768 individuals, mostly within the last five generations—including, as I’ve discovered to be helpful when examining autosomal DNA results, as many of the siblings of each generation as possible plus their descendants.

In contrast, my husband’s maternal tree includes 967 people. Perhaps that difference is owing to the fact that, though she assumed her family had “just gotten off the boat” a few generations back, my mother-in-law’s family came to the United States before the beginning of the 1800s. Often, the longer an immigrant was resident in this country, the easier it is to press backward through the generations with viable documentation.

That, perhaps, is why, of my husband’s 462 autosomal DNA test matches, the only two confirmed relationships belong to descendants on his maternal side.

While it will be tempting, now that I’m re-opening the possibilities of revisiting past progress on my husband’s lines, to go back and add more names on that easy-sailing maternal side, I need to maintain my focus on the Stevens side. While the going will be fraught with struggle—after all, I’m no better off, right now, than a bug splat on my windshield after a drive on the freeway—this is what needs to be pursued right now. Who knows what a cooperative cousin may bring to this adventure.

Above: Print of Mitchelstown Castle, County Cork, Ireland, originally published in 1820 in "Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland." Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Happy is a Kind of Stress, Too

It’s been a wonderful month—in everything, that is, except genealogy.

At our home, we’ve had loads of company, visits from out-of-state family members, celebrations and graduation and end-of-school-year and c’mon-summer-vacation highs. What more could we ask?

When I look at all the good times, good food and good company, I guess I can’t complain too much about my lack of progress in research statistics. Besides, I did get something done. In the past two weeks, I nudged my maternal family tree head count up from 3,444 to 3,727. The rate of progress is slowing, admittedly, but I’m still pressing on. I know “slow and steady” is an admirable goal; perhaps slowing but steady could count, too.

Things seem to be slowing down at Family Tree DNA, as well, for I only received an additional four autosomal DNA matches in the last two weeks, bringing my total to 833. As FTDNA tends to offer sale pricing for their tests around Father’s Day, here’s hoping that will bring on another surge of matches.

I did, however, manage to send one contact email to a distant match, so we are mutually muddling over how, exactly, we might be fifth cousins—a discussion unlikely to bring us to any resolution in the foreseeable future, but at least we are trying. This DNA testing does spur us on to hone our researching skills, if nothing else.

On the mtDNA front, however, the good news is that the “computer glitch” which told my exact match mystery cousin that he had an exact match—but failed to record the same for me—has been amended. All is now right with the world again; the “a” that equals the “b” that equals the “c” now reciprocates nicely to demonstrate that “c” will also equal “a.” I now have two exact matches—and both of them were adopted. Nothing is ever easy.

With the abrupt conclusion to my new attempt at unraveling my paternal line’s mystery, numbers there were stunningly unimpressive, as well. Actually, that is putting it optimistically; in reality, I accomplished absolutely nothing in that line. I’m still hovering at 148 names in my paternal tree, with twenty two matches through my autosomal DNA results.

Since last week brought a renewed connection with a distant cousin in my husband’s Tully line, it may be time to begin keeping stats on his DNA results, as well. Because some of my husband’s lines were also in this country for a couple centuries, it has been relatively easy to document connections back through several generations. This is the type of fertile field where genetic genealogists must like to frolic when they need encouragement—which, at this juncture, might not be a bad idea.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Genealogy Societies:
What Are They Good For?

It’s that long drive home from our local genealogical society meeting, the third Thursday of the month, that gets me thinking. Sometimes, we have great speakers and the presentations—or something mentioned by a fellow member, afterward—spark ideas. My brain starts spinning off those ideas, careening into other thoughts, and I come away from the drive home, energized.

Then I log in to my email, or check my feed to see what’s been posted lately in genealogy blogs, and I see the feeling is not always mutual. From reading some of those posts, one would gather that genealogical societies are a dying breed. That their time has come—and gone. That they’re wearing out their welcome mat in this bright new age of instant access to digitized records.

That may be true, but.

Since when are we not social creatures? I like what one of our local board members once observed: genealogical societies are where we fanatics can gather together to tell each other about our latest research conquests without every eye in our audience beginning to roll. When we’re with people who understand, it makes all the difference. After all, every story needs an audience. And boy, are we the ones who find the stories.

Have those stories lost their pertinence? After all, who cares about grand-uncle Harry? Nobody even knows what “grand-uncle” means, anymore.

Or is it just that we’ve lost our ability to connect—not with our past, but with our present? That we are no longer able to encourage each other in the processes of our pursuit, here and now, among our peers experiencing the same research issues we stumble upon.

I’m wondering if there is any aspect to the “chemistry” that happens when people with this mutual interest in genealogy come together as a group. I’m one of those people who has just got to have faith in the process—that people excited about an exciting pursuit will resonate with excitement when they achieve their pursuit’s goals. And that excitement will attract more excitement—and more to get excited about.

If that explanation sounds redundant to you, I want it to appear as the obvious statement it is. How can we not generate some excitement about our mutually-chosen passion? Yeah, some people in some genealogical societies might not like some aspects of their organization. But you’ve got to find what works for the people in your group—what inspires them, what draws them back for more.

Our local society had entered a slump, years ago. Perhaps some thought it was a signal that we had come to the beginning of our end. A wise number-cruncher observed, from our group’s statistics, that our membership and meeting attendance began its downward spiral at the advent of online genealogy powerhouses. Why join a society, when you could pay a company to deliver all the research documents you needed, right to your own door?

The assumption underlying that conclusion, of course, was that people joined genealogical societies because they wanted a local source to help them access the material that improved their research results. While that may, indeed, be a worthy goal for such organizations, that is not the only reason researchers seek out fellow researchers. But even that doesn’t touch the crux of the matter.

Everyone knows that genealogical societies are two-headed monsters. We join together with lofty organizational goals such as “preserve local records of genealogical value”—and that does become a service of benefit to our home community. Yet, what is the focus of our members’ own genealogical research? Usually, every place but the one we currently call home. The uneasy truce between these diametrically opposed goals is to fill our events with generic educational programs that can cross-apply to anyone researching anything almost anywhere.

And when we water something down that far, anything can lose its zing. Even something we are as passionate about as genealogy.

While we admittedly can champion our enthusiasm about genealogy, the goal must not only be to generate excitement about our content. We also need to make peace with our process—how we build the organization that best delivers that content to our constituency. That there are people out there who want to share what they’re discovering during their genealogical pursuits, there is no question. How to build the infrastructure to accommodate that process may very well be the bigger question.  
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