Saturday, December 16, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

To be precise, this book isn't exactly off my shelf; in his absence, I made an arbitrary decision to borrow the book off my husband's bookshelf. Since he's lately been my only reader in Saudi Arabia—until this morning, when he joined my readership from Germany—I figured he wouldn't mind if I lifted a title from his reading stack back here at home.

If you know me, you know I have a strong affinity for the use of story. For whatever reason, for the last several days, every time I pass that to-read stack of books, the one with the term "story" stands out; it's almost as if it is shouting at me. And since I haven't mentioned much around here about reading since last September, I figured it was about time to pull up a comfy chair and open another book.

So this month, it will be Annette Simmons' Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. I have the updated second edition, published in 2015.

There's no doubt story has a power to draw people's attention. We are naturally wired to wonder, "and then what?" We want to know whodunit, and why.

The drawback is that we associate stories with fiction—something to pull out in our spare time, for entertainment or to decompress from real world struggles. We forget that it is we who represent stories with our own lives, as well—we just haven't discovered the means for uncovering those stories, for harvesting their message.

For those of us in genealogy, we are aware of the stories resident in the family history facts we uncover. Those birth, marriage, and death dots connect us with the life stories of our ancestors. It is when we glean those details and let that family history narrative include the stories that we gain an audience with our fellow family members who otherwise might not be even slightly interested in knowing about their ancestors. The story becomes the hook.

As I step into the role of heading up our local genealogical society, I see the potential in the aggregate of all the stories represented by each of our members. Some of those stories belong in the locales where our families once lived, far from our current west coast location, but some stories happened right here in our own jurisdiction—stories so fascinating that they will draw in others and convert them into believers who want to know the rest of the stories of our county.

Those stories represent micro-histories woven into the larger fabric of our communities' heritage, of course, but while we may shy away from the "boring history" we remember from our school days, to know about the dramas that unfolded in the lives of the friends and neighbors of our grandparents contains an entirely different motivating factor.

To represent our genealogical societies is to represent the stories of our members and the stories of the people in our communities—present and past. To tell the story, then, becomes a means for encouraging others to join us, to weave their own family histories into our joint community story. Annette Simmons' book, as a workbook and inspiration for employing this storytelling modality, offers a blueprint to help us as a society to share those compelling elements of our research. Our audience—potential members and future supporters of our society's work—will find it is the stories that will resonate with them. We need to find the best way to bring those stories to life so they can work their magic.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Deciphering the Details

It's inevitable, when researching information on family history from past centuries, that we'll encounter terms and descriptions that seem so foreign that they are of no help at all in allowing us to better understand the world in which our ancestors lived. Face it, the world back in 1880 or even 1908 was a vastly different place than the one in which we now live. Activities of daily life became a collection of terms and tasks far different than ones we use today. Sometimes, the difference is so huge, we end up walking away without having the slightest idea about things that, to our ancestors, were so commonplace.

In researching my family's history, that's when I start asking questions.

Reading the reports on the untimely death of John Blain in Paola, Kansas, in 1908 had that same effect on me. Take, for instance, the court description of the main train track curving "round that cobhouse to the eastward." Cobhouse? I had to look that one up. (Apparently, the term either refers to a "flimsy unstable structure" or a small building "constructed of mud, clay, and straw."

Granted, I could have inferred a similar meaning from the context of the article, but I just wanted to know specifically what the term might have meant at the time it was used.

But it was another phrase that really pushed me to look it up instead of settling for an educated guess. Remember the part which mentioned that John Blain, in turning to see who was calling to him, was then "struck by the pilot beam of the engine."

What's a pilot beam?

I realize there are those who are so taken with the history of railroads that their enthusiasm for the subject has led them to either spend thousands of dollars on collectibles or spend countless hours consuming every last detail about the topic. I am not one of those people, so please forgive my ignorance. I had to go look up what a pilot beam might have been.

Going in search of this information was not an easy process, given my complete lack of understanding about locomotives. The handy-dandy drawing of the "Commonwealth Locomotive Pilot Beam with Flexible Buffing Gear" in the 1922 Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice, for instance, told me nothing. There was no scale to the drawing, nor any diagram with a red arrow and the directions, "insert pilot beam here."

I need that kind of guidance when attempting to understand my ancestors' world.

Nor did the entry I was directed to in the 1906 Locomotive Dictionary, despite its being billed as "An Illustrated Vocabulary of Terms which Designate American Railroad Locomotives." When I googled the term "pilot beam," I was directed to the page fourteen definition for "bumper beam." As a subheading to that term, the dictionary described pilot beams as "the term applied to the same part [bumper beam] when the locomotive is fitted with a pilot."


Eventually, on page fifty nine, I found an explanation which made a bit more sense—but only after wading through more verbiage. Here's how the book defined "pilot":
An inclined pointed structure of wood or iron bars fastened to the front bumper of a locomotive to remove obstructions from the track.

Oh. And then the dictionary provided the part that translated to our era:
Formerly called cow catcher.

Formerly called cow catcher? I've never heard of a pilot on a locomotive, but at least I've heard of a cow catcher. So the pilot beam must be something which affixed to the cow catcher. Great. So now I can disabuse myself of any visuals of the man being gored to death by a literal beam somehow protruding from the front of a locomotive like a gladiator's spear.

Taking the time to ascertain the exactness of terms we're not currently familiar with can help paint a clearer picture of the specific episodes in our ancestors' lives. While a 1908 term like pilot beam might not be that outdated, the terms of centuries past sometimes yield us curves which we're not sure how to field. Learning how to talk the lingo of our ancestors' contemporaries can sometimes open our eyes to the impact of those everyday realities in the lives of the people we are researching.

Above: Undated photograph of the Missouri Pacific Railway locomotive engine number 152; image number RG005_77_27_0714 courtesy the Missouri State Archives via Wikipedia; in the public domain—with a mighty fine specimen of a pilot included, if I say so myself.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

How it Happened: Version Two

In trying to piece together a cogent history of the life of the man whose picture I rescued from a local antique store, it turns out that, once again, we find that life stories seem always to include the unexpected. When we started, all we knew was that the subject's name was John Blain, and that he sat for his likeness at a photography studio in the small town of Walnut, Kansas, sometime during the 1880s.

More to the point, once we discovered the tragedy that had befallen this man in the prime of his life, we've been presented with two versions of just what happened to lead to his demise. You already know my bias against trusting, wholesale, contemporary newspaper reports. In John Blain's case, due to the nature of what befell him in 1908, we have the opportunity to examine two different versions of what actually happened.

From a summary of the appeals process, published in volume 184 of The Southwestern Reporter, we learn that John Blain's widow, serving as administratrix of his estate, had filed suit for $10,000 against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company for the death of her husband. While the summary, on page 1142 through 1143, mentioned that the suit was brought according to provisions under Kansas state statutes, the case was actually heard in the state of Missouri. No reason was given for this, though it appeared that, based on Missouri law, the outcome was not to be what the widow might have hoped.

Through the summary, we once again see details we've already learned through the newspaper report we discussed yesterday: that John Blain was a man of forty four years of age, that he was engaged in the lumber and furniture business in Centerville, Kansas, and that he received his fatal injuries in the city of Paola, Kansas.

That's pretty much where the similarities stop. The court cases, presumably extracting their evidence from witnesses on the stand, provided more detail about the incident—but also details that may or may not have lined up exactly with what we've learned from the Wichita newspaper account.

The summary in The Southwestern Reporter first included some background information, setting the scene:
Peoria street, in Paola, runs east and west across the tracks of three railroad systems all parallel and lying within a strip of about 200 feet. About 24 passenger trains on those roads cross that street within that many hours, and many more freights. As those tracks are approached from the east the first is a switch of the defendant [Missouri Pacific] running to an elevator standing just west of Peoria street and just east of the switch. Next comes the main track of defendant. Between it and said switch on the north side of the street is a cobhouse used in connection with the elevator. The main track spoken of above curves round that cobhouse to the eastward. About four blocks north of Peoria street is the defendant's station. The regular passenger train was due there at 11:40 a.m.

Now that the description has set the stage, the narrative went on to introduce the main player, our unfortunate John Blain.
Just at noon Blain was proceeding west on the sidewalk on the south side of that street. When he had crossed the switch track and got within 8 or 10 feet of defendant's main track, had he looked westward, he could have seen a train on that main track a distance of 400 or 500 feet. The regular passenger train south bound left the station just at noon, gave two long and two short whistles when about 400 feet from Peoria street, and continued ringing the engine bell from that point until it crossed the street....

This is where the description seemed incredible, making me wonder why it happened the way it did.
Blain proceeded straight ahead without looking for the approach of any train. He was in about two feet of the defendant's main track when someone called to him. He looked back, and, while doing so, was struck by the pilot beam of the engine and knocked about twenty feet.

Right there, at that point in the narrative, I find so many issues that prompt questions. Why, for instance, did he not look before crossing the tracks? Was he not responsive to all the din around him? Was it precisely for such a reason that his ears became deaf to the very signal that was supposed to warn him away? And why was someone calling to him at such a precarious point? Was it, ironically, to warn him to "Look out"?

As a sad postscript to the blow-by-blow, the case summary added,
For about two years there had been an electric bell at that crossing, but for a great portion of the time it had been out of repair, and was out of repair and not working on the day in question.

Although an oversight such as that, on the part of a defendant, would surely now have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case, that was not so for Mrs. Blain's appeal. The $10,000 she was seeking—depending on which inflation calculator used, representing in today's economy anywhere from $239,000 to $261,000—was not to be awarded to her. The prime determining factor:
When a person, capable of seeing and hearing, in broad daylight, attempts to cross a railroad track in front of a rapidly moving train, without looking or listening for such train, and is struck by it and injured, his own negligence is the proximate cause of his injury....

Despite conceding, in the court's report, that "it was negligence in the defendant to allow the electric bell to be out of repair," that was not enough of a contributing factor to sway the court's decision. Apparently, the indiscretion of the victim of the injury trumped any negligence on the part of the corporation, according to the laws at that time in the state of Missouri, and the widow's appeal was unsuccessful.

That result, of course, put the mother of four young children in a precarious position of her own.   

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How it Happened: Version One

Determining just what occurred to cause the tragic death of John Blain seems a straightforward process, if you rely on only one version of the story. There were, however, at least two different accounts of what happened, back in 1908 in Paola, Kansas. While it is possible that the truth is closer to an amalgamation of the two versions, let's take a look at each one separately.

First, we'll look at the document which was published closest to the time of John's death. It's an article from The Wichita Beacon, appearing on page seven of the Tuesday edition on June 23, 1908. If you are a subscriber, you can view a digitized version of the original here.

We've already reviewed the report's opening paragraph yesterday. Under a headline blaring, "Lived Three Days," the article explained, beginning with the second paragraph, that
At Paola, Mr. Blain was compelled to change cars. After he left the train, he was struck by the engine of an outgoing train and received fatal injuries on his head, back and chest. He was immediately removed to the office of a physician where his injuries were given proper attention. As soon as Mr. Blain was able to be moved he was taken to his home. Upon his removal to his home he steadily grew worse, suffering both from external and internal injuries. Word was received in the city yesterday by his sister that after suffering intensely from his injuries for three days that he had died.

That was the complete report on the actual episode, according to The Wichita Beacon. The article continued with a note about his survivors—his wife and four young daughters, as well as the "sister" in Wichita and her daughter. It concluded with a note that "the body will be taken to Walnut, Kans., for interment."

After learning that the man spent the last few days of his life in such agony, you will not be surprised to learn that John Blain's widow found reason to bring suit against the railroad company operating the locomotive which had struck her husband. Perhaps her legal counsel was convinced there was a basis for a wrongful death case.

That case against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company wound its way through an appeals process up to the Missouri Supreme Court and was not resolved until nearly eight years after the June day in 1908 when John Blain was struck down by one of the company's locomotives.

Above: From the 1903 edition of Poor's Manual of the Railroads of the United States, showing the lines of the Missouri Pacific Railway Company. Among the tangled lines, the one dropping southwest from Kansas City heads first to Paola. The city name is written sideways, making it harder to locate on the map. Image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Did the Newspaper get it Wrong?

While returning to his home in Centerville, Kans., after visiting relatives in this city, John Blain was struck by a locomotive. He received injuries which resulted in his death. Mr. Blain spent the last few weeks the guest of his sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters of South Dodge avenue, and left the latter part of last week for his home.

That was, in part, how the newspaper reported the tragedy that befell John Blain in 1908. "This city" referred to Wichita, Kansas, home of the McFeeters family, where The Wichita Beacon carried the report on Tuesday, June 23 of that year.

But was that the way it all really happened? If you have been following A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you already know my unceasing doubt of journalism's reporting prowess. More than harboring an unforgiving stance on errors in print, though, I find that the discovery of one error in a report causes me to doubt the veracity of the rest of the article.

I'll show you what I mean. See that reference to John Blain's sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters? As I muddled through the genealogical process to determine just who this man was whose photo I had discovered in a local antique store, I set up a family tree to assist me in this pursuit.

One thing I learned in the process of building that tree was that while John Blain had many sisters, none of them had married anyone with the surname McFeeters. It turned out, however, that his wife had a sister who did.

John Blain had married Harriet Isabel Beeman, that nearly thirty year old woman with whom he tied the knot in the neighboring state of Missouri in the fall of 1897. While Harriet may have reported that she was living in Missouri at the time, she was part of a large family whose residence had ranged, over the years, from Indiana to Nebraska before their arrival in the Show-Me state. Even after that point, Harriet's parents, Green Yarnel and Martha Johnson Beeman, appeared in records in Wichita, Kansas, before her father's passing in 1902.

Harriet's next-oldest sister, Sarah Ellen Beeman, who like Harriet was born in Nebraska, eventually also settled down in Kansas. She was the one who married George W. McFeeters on October 20, 1885. (Interestingly, though both reported they were residents of Kansas, they traveled to Vernon County, Missouri, for their wedding, as Sarah's sister Harriet did for her own marriage over ten years later, making me wonder whether Vernon County served as a sort of "Gretna Green" city for the region, though I've found no mention of such a custom for the area.)

It was this Sarah Ellen and George McFeeters who were the ones John Blain had been visiting in Wichita, before returning home to Centerville by way of Paola, Kansas, on the day in which he was struck by the Missouri Pacific locomotive. While it may be a small detail for a reporter to confuse a sister for a sister-in-law, just that one mistake makes me wonder how many other details in the article might also have been inaccurate. When time comes to review the version reported in the court proceedings regarding the suit brought by John's widow, the different account rendered there only augments my doubts. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

"In the Prime of Life"

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned about an "average" life, just by picking up a photograph of a stranger and researching his life's story. We've already seen that when I found an entire photo album in an local antique shop—discovering enough information to send the photo collection home to family in County Cork, Ireland—and we will certainly have the same type of experience while exploring the details in another found photo, this time of a man with a moustache from Walnut, Kansas, known as John Blain.

By the time the man with the moustache was forty four—what some would consider the prime of his life—he and his family had moved from Walnut, Kansas, to a smaller town to the north, known as Centerville. John was in the lumber and furniture business, which had apparently brought him to Centerville in the first place. He had been there since a year or two after the 1900 census. At the point of the 1905 state census, he and his wife Harriet were living in a Centerville home with their two daughters, Emma and Rozella. Within a year, the family was joined by twin daughters Vera and Vida.

By June of 1908, whether for business reasons or for visits to family in other parts of the state, John Blain would pass through the little town of Paola, a stop where he needed to change trains on his way to or from Centerville, about once a month.

On one particular day, arriving at Paola about noontime, John stepped off his train and headed down the sidewalk to cross the tracks to make his train change. When he was barely two feet from the tracks, for whatever reason, someone hollered to him, and he turned to see who it was. Just at that moment, a passing train on the parallel line for the Missouri Pacific Railway struck him and knocked him twenty feet.

Such a trajectory from the sudden blow caused injuries to John's head, back and chest, all of which were treated by a local physician in the doctor's own office.

When he was deemed able to be moved—and one can only imagine in what shape that might have been—John was transported home to Centerville to recuperate from his injuries. His recovery period, however, was cut short: within three days, and after considerable agony, John Blain succumbed to both internal and external injuries sustained from the incident in Paola. Following his unfortunate death on June 20, 1908, his body was returned to his childhood home in Walnut, where he was buried in the same cemetery where his mother had been laid to rest only four years before.

Left with four daughters under the age of ten, John's widow, undoubtedly with the encouragement of legal counsel, filed suit against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company, a process which did not finally get resolved for another eight years.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking Stock of Possibilities

It was mission accomplished this past Tuesday, up in the foothills of northern California. Following some prodding by my daughter and guidance from a helpful friend of hers, I made a day of it and drove up toward the region of the state best known for its role in the California gold rush well over a century ago. There to keep me company on the drive—and to make sure I didn't miss out on any fabulous bargains or potential blog-post-worthy photography finds—was my good friend and mentor Sheri Fenley of The Educated Genealogist.

Of course, we had a blast. Anyone traveling with Sheri can't help but have fun. On the way up, we enjoyed the beautiful vistas, the sunshine and blue skies, and the changing scenery from our flat valley hometown to the modest altitude of about twelve hundred feet as we made our way northeastward.

Our strategy was to start near the intersection of the aptly-named state Highway 49 and Highway 88. Then, we'd work our way southward for as many towns—and their antique stores—as necessary until we obtained our goal of rescuing enough old photographs with names out of which to tease a few stories.

First stop was a favorite among antiquing enthusiasts: a "city" of a mere twenty five hundred called Sutter Creek. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the place was named after John Sutter, whose logging operations in the area occurred as early as 1846. While the tiny town comes with a rich history—and an enthusiastic following of weekend bargain hunters—on a Tuesday in early December, there was not much to be found in the one antique shop which happened to be open when we got there.

Undaunted, we continued on our itinerary to our next stop, which was a short drive south on Highway 49. This brought us to the Main Street of Jackson, county seat of Amador County and a city of at least two thousand more people than Sutter Creek. Despite being home to several antique shops—and regardless of the hours they were reported to be open that day—once again, we found only one true antique shop open for business.

Nevertheless, it only takes one to achieve the goal, and this one—predictably called "Antiques on Main"—made it possible for us to come home with our goal amply in hand.

What I was hoping for were old photos containing both a full name and a location. For anyone who enjoys following "Far Side of Fifty" on her blog, Forgotten Old Photos, you know how hard it can be to accomplish such a goal. What was wonderful at this shop, though, was that there were several boxes full of photographs. Most lacked any identification, of course, but there were several which either featured a full name, or at least seemed to indicate a connection to other photographs containing more hints. Most were in English and were of American subjects, but it was tantalizing to find photos from other countries, including one dated 1873 with German writing on the back.

It was great having a friend come along on this journey, not just for the company of course, but also for Sheri's assistance in searching through the large number of photographs, and for her professional genealogist's eye in finding the candidates most likely to succeed in my project. The only down side was that our must-have pile started getting much larger than my budget for the project. It was a shining moment when the shopkeeper stopped by to see how we were doing, and mentioned she could offer a discount if we decided to buy a good number of photographs.

I always like that word, discount.

Needless to say, we came away from our excellent adventure with enough photographic cousin bait to keep me busy for many posts to come.

Above: Photograph of Sutter Creek, California, as it appeared in 1853; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Paying it Forward
One Document at a Time

Plunging into the subsequent generations of the man whose photo I found in an antique shop, I learn that one of his daughters had married a man born in Greece. At the time period in which this happened, a female American who entered into such a marriage lost her citizenship, and could only regain it upon going through the same naturalization process as her husband. Of course, I can trace the process from the point at which she married the Greek man, and at which point she filed her papers to regain her citizenship, but as for the interim—in which the man apparently changed his name to a much simpler American surname—I can find no such documentation.

Perhaps for that reason, when it came time for this month's volunteer work at indexing genealogical records, I decided to look at the naturalization records needing some work at I indexed two batches of naturalization records in the hope that every little bit helps. More to the point, I hoped that this Greek man's legal paper trail might be one of the records about to be released into the searchable stack, once this set of records is completely indexed.

While the batches of records I handled seemed to contain only immigrants from Italy and Switzerland, I have to trust that somewhere, somehow, the pages with the Blain family's son in law will soon surface. So many of us have benefited from records which have already been digitized, indexed and placed online. We didn't do the work to get those records online, of course, but we can do our part to pass the blessing along to others by helping to get even more records on the website. That's why I try to do a little bit of indexing every month. Every little bit does turn out to make a difference.

Whether I ever find that Greek son in law's naturalization records or not, I know that the few minutes I dedicated to doing this easy bit of volunteer work—in the cozy comfort of my own home, complete with mocha and snacks—will make research easier for someone else, just like others have done in the past for me.

Above: Victorian Trade Card for Alter, Forwood & Company, prepared by lithographer A. B. Seeley in 1881; courtesy Miami University Libraries Digital Library Program via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Gone a-courtin' in the Show-Me State

Though it's only an hour's drive away in today's travel conditions, I don't suppose I had expected a young man who had just moved from Kentucky to Kansas to slip over the border to yet another state to find his bride. Shows you what a poor guesser I am.

By the time we had found John Blain in the 1880 census, the Kentucky native was only seventeen years of age. Of course, it was a few years after that point—actually, closer to the turn of the century—when he began thinking about finding someone with whom to tie the knot, so perhaps by then, he had already scoped out the possibilities in his newly-adopted state and decided to look elsewhere.

If it weren't for those shaky-leaf hints at Ancestry, I wouldn't have given it a thought to look for marriage records for John Blain in Missouri, but that is apparently where he found the love of his life. She was a gal in her late twenties by the name of Harriet Beeman who caught his eye. Living in yet another of those small, rural towns—Walker, in Vernon County, Missouri—Harriet told John "I do" before the local Justice of the Peace on the twenty third of September in the year 1897.

When we found the newlyweds back in Walnut, Kansas, in the next census—taken nearly three years later in June, 1900—John and Harriet were the proud parents of daughter Emma, who had arrived in the Blain household in August of the previous year. As it turned out, baby Emma was to be the first of four daughters. Following her arrival in 1899, she was joined by sisters Rozella in 1902 and twins Vera and Vida in 1906.

By the time of the twins' arrival, their paternal grandmother had already passed away—a sadness not unknown by many young families, certainly, but unlikely to be the impetus for the next occurrence in the life of the Blain family. With the 1905 Kansas state census, we learn that John and Harriet and their children had moved from their rental home in Walnut to another place in an even smaller community about fifty five miles to the north, known as Centerville.

Perhaps it was on account of his business that John moved his family away from Walnut. The 1905 state census reported his occupation to be "hardware." Whether for business or simply to keep in touch with family back home in Walnut, John found himself traveling by train to span the hour's travel distance between his old hometown and the new community. It was on one such trip that life suddenly changed for the entire family.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

New Kid in (New) Town

When John Blain showed up in the 1880 census in Walnut, Kansas—just where his 1880s-style photograph led me to find him—he was still a teenager living with his parents. There in the home of William T. and Martha Wortham Blain, John appeared as the eldest of their six children.

One fact stood out to me in this household: everyone in the family, down to three year old Nettie Blain, had not been born in Kansas, but in Kentucky.

I decided to try my hand at finding the Blain family in the 1870 census, to see where they might have originated in Kentucky. I already figured that nine year old Rufus, seven year old Effie and their youngest sister Nettie would not be part of that earlier Kentucky household, but knew it wouldn't be hard to locate the three older children with their parents in the 1870 enumeration.

Sure enough, it looks like the Blains' hometown was a place equally as tiny as their new home in Kansas: a town of about three hundred residents called Livermore in McLean County, Kentucky.

Sometime between the birth of their then-youngest daughter Nettie around 1877 and the 1880 census, the Blains left their Kentucky farm and migrated the five hundred miles across the state of Missouri to reach the eastern edge of Kansas and their new home. From that point on, it appeared William and Martha Blain's family stayed in Walnut; they appeared in the 1885 state census and the 1900 federal census.

Considering William was born around 1832, and his wife in 1839, you would not find it surprising to learn that their names eventually dropped off the census rolls after the turn of the century. Indeed, Martha predeceased her husband in 1904 at the age of sixty four. William followed in 1915, and the couple were both buried in that Kansas town of Walnut where they had settled.

When their son John emerged from that fifteen year gap in governmental records in 1900, things were quite different for him. Gone was the seventeen year old son, living in his parents' home, according to that 1880 census. Now, he was a salesman and family man of thirty seven years of age. Married and with a young daughter living at home, still in Walnut, perhaps he felt he had a good long—and hopefully successful—life ahead of him.

You already can guess that that, of course, is not what happened. Life stories naturally come with twists and turns, and John Blain's was no different, although I'll admit the future he was about to face was somewhat more unusual than most.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Meet the Man With the Moustache

An old photograph of a mystery man can offer several hints—if the viewer is able to perceive those clues and understand their meaning. Everything from the style and size of the photograph to the material of the card stock it was mounted on can help estimate when the picture was taken. Of course, the very clothes the subject was wearing—or even the style of his moustache—can date the photograph as well, as can information included in the photographer's imprint.

In the case of the photograph I found a few years ago, along with that old Christmas photo album in a northern California antique store, most of the details were simple. Because the mounting measured about four and a quarter by six and a half inches, I knew I was looking at a cabinet card, rather than the earlier—and much smaller—presentation style known as the carte de visite. That helped me zero in on a time frame beginning around 1865, and more likely around the late 1870s and 1880s.

That, however, is too wide a time frame for me. Thankfully, even the smaller details within the picture frame can narrow the date. A useful checklist in an article on dating cabinet cards mentioned that lightweight card stock, like the one in my photograph, was used from about 1866 to 1880—which also was the time frame for use of cream colored card stock. However, the article also mentioned that a matte-finished front, rather than glossy finish, was used from 1882 to 1888.

Still, that date range seems rather wide. Thankfully, there are other ways to date a photograph, as well. The subject of the photograph can provide enormous tells, when it comes to dating the picture. The style of the collar, the width of the lapels, the type of knot used on the tie—or even that moustache—are some of the many clues revealing a time frame.

While I'm not particularly handy at reviewing such details, I know there are training resources out there to help; our genealogical society recently hosted the "Genealogy Lady," Deborah Sweeney, who spoke on how to track fashion details for photographs. If I am stumped with the other possible routes to guessing the decade to focus on, I can certainly use the guidance gained from Deborah's workshop.

Knowing all those resources for hints on dating photographs, what did I do? Just make an educated guess and jump in.

This may be ill-advised for those who like to proceed cautiously. After all, the man in my photograph could have ridden into town from a distance—we are talking agricultural country here—to have his picture taken. He could have lived anywhere. All we know is that the photograph was produced in a small town called Walnut in eastern Kansas. For all we know at this point, the photographer could have been itinerant, as well.

But I decided to take my chances. I made a wild guess that this man would be a resident of Walnut and would show up in the 1880 census. I did have, after all, his name: John Blain. While John is one of the most common names in the English language, I hoped that the surname might have tempered the results enough to provide a possibility. Besides, we're talking about a town with only about two hundred people in 1880.

Fortunately, there was one, and only one, John Blain in the 1880 census in Walnut, Kansas—although not the only one in the state of Kansas. What surprised me, though, was that at the time of the 1880 census, this John Blain in Walnut was only seventeen years of age.

Seventeen? That was not how the photograph made him appear. While he did look young, he certainly wasn't a teenager in that picture. Perhaps the portrait was taken much later—at least to the point at which our man could have sported his moustache for his likeness.

Still, at least we've already found our possible subject. Next, on to learn more about who this person was.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Walnut, Kansas: Snapshot in Time

Trying to weave a family history from the strands left on the back of an antique photograph can transport you to unexpected places. Take my last such experiment: an entire photo album with nothing but a few first names led me from the place of its discovery in northern California to its origin over five thousand miles away in County Cork, Ireland.

And oh, the stories we learned in the process! That kind of experience led me to the conclusion that nobody has a boring life story.

But what are the chances that we'll see a repeat performance with this next photo discovery? While I doubt I'll find a life story originating in that same country across the Atlantic, with a picture found in California, the possibilities are wide open.

Though the photograph I'll be chasing this time does contain the hint of a complete name—we have the benefit of a surname along with the generic given name of John—there is nothing much else to go by, other than the photographer's imprint on the front of the photograph. From that, we learn that the picture was taken in Kansas, in a small town called Walnut.

Whether the subject of the photograph actually lived in Walnut, we can't yet be sure, but at least we know he was in the vicinity, at least momentarily.

Since I'm not very good at guessing dates of photographs from either the style of the frame or the style of the clothing sported by the subject of the portrait, I decided to first learn what I could about that little town.

That, as it turned out, was a good start to the project. Right away, I learned that the population of Walnut in the 1880s—my guess for when the picture was taken—was barely two hundred. That, of course, increases our chance that, if we take a look at the 1880 census for that town, any matching name would not merely be a case of mistaken identity.

But was the photograph taken in 1880? By 1890, the town's population had multiplied to over five hundred residents. I took a look at other reports about the town to see if I could pinpoint dates even further.

According to one report, the town was relatively new at that time. Only laid out in 1871, the town was originally called Glenwood. Since our photograph clearly mentions the name of the town as Walnut, we know the photograph wouldn't have been taken that early.

That same report mentioned the town's name change had occurred in 1874—but that the post office didn't officially change its name until April of 1877. Another report, however—and this one was drawn up much closer to the time period, itself—explained that growth of the original town was hampered by dispute over the original title to the land, a difficulty which was not resolved until 1876. Upon that point, additional land was added to the original town plans up through 1882, thus allowing for expansion of business as well as the population beyond that date.

With a town that small, it goes without saying that there would be no "city" directory available online for me to look up any reference to the photography studio. Thankfully, though, the border of the picture clearly bears the imprint for a studio named Shuck, with the location, "Walnut, Kansas" included alongside the studio's identity.

How the photograph made it from Walnut, Kansas, to the antique shop where I found it in Lodi, California, is the question. I often imagine romantic stories accompanying such pictures: a beau missing his intended and sending a reminder; relatives back home missing their fortune-seeking children. The possibility for stories is immense—at least in my mind.

As I've done before, with this project, I'll start by constructing a hypothesis about the subject of the photograph. We've already noticed the imprint giving us a hint where the item originated; now, we need to see if anyone by our subject's name lived in that vicinity. If so, that will provide us with some additional facts to go by.

Then—if we can even find that much information—comes the tedious part of piecing that person's life story together, using documentation from all the usual sources genealogists are so familiar with handling. What comes next is anyone's guess, but getting to the point where we can figure this out will certainly be worth the journey. The added bonus, of course, is if we can reunite the found photo with the family to whom it really belongs.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Not in the Mail

I have a confession to make. No, it isn't that I haven't yet gotten my Christmas cards in the mail; I've still got plenty of time for that (says the procrastinator). It's an entirely different item that I neglected to send off in the mail.

My confession is that I am horrible at mailing things. Email was made explicitly for people like me, people who, though still supplied with pen, paper and envelope—even the stamp, for crying out loud!—somehow can't find a way to transform those raw materials into the item intended for delivery in the mail.

In today's case, it wasn't a letter I meant to mail, per se, but a package. A small package. A flat package. One containing a photograph from, oh, maybe one hundred thirty years ago.

I'm just guessing about the age of the thing, of course, because I haven't yet researched it. But when I first obtained the photograph, I had meant to send it on—along with that Christmas photo album I had found at the same time—to my friend and mentor, "Far Side" of Forgotten Old Photos. She has a talent for reuniting old photographs with family members, so I had thought she could try her hand at finding a home for this one. All except for one thing: I never got it mailed.

So much for good intentions. At this point, casting about for a story, I've decided to take the suggestion of a friend and head for the hills to peruse the antique shops near Gold Rush country in California. I have a traveling companion to keep me company—thanks to the offer of good friend and mentor Sheri Fenley—and the date for our road trip is already set.

There's only one problem: I want to write about those old photographs now. Thus, I remember my transgressions and sheepishly pull out the folder storing the old, unmailed treasure and swipe it for my own blog post here.

So, with apologies to Connie at Forgotten Old Photos, we'll be off on our own adventure, seeing whether there is any way to connect an old face with a new family member. This week, we'll start in a small town in the eastern part of the state of Kansas and work our way westward as we journey through the decades since a young man posed for his portrait at the Shuck photography studio in tiny Walnut, Kansas, sometime around the 1880s.  

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Closing in on Another Year's End

It's December. Already. It may have seemed like a long year while it was unwinding, but now that we're in the last month, I'm seeing a to-do list longer than the calendar page.

Keeping up with my progress in family history research for the entire year will yield some interesting observations, come the end of this year. After today's count, I only have two more biweekly tallies, then the year is gone forever. It will be interesting to measure how much has been done—a little here, a little there, for a whole year. Baby steps can add up.

For now, I'm still switching back and forth between my mother's tree and the tree for my mother-in-law. Each of them are relatively easy to work on, and sometimes yield interesting stories. (After moaning over the lack of such stories yesterday, I went on to discover one fascinating tidbit about an in-law for a distant cousin on my mother's side; if the facts check out and there is no mistaken identity, I may have a story to share, after all.)

My mother-in-law's tree is still the one out in front, mostly by virtue of those traditional Catholic values multiplied out by countless generations since arriving on American shores. Right now, her tree includes 13,586 individuals, an increase of 191 over the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, my mother's tree lags behind at 11,820, though I did manage to add 138 additional, documented family members. Perhaps it is a bit more challenging to research her lines, after all.

One thing I absolutely must change for next year is to attend to the trees of both my father and my father-in-law. Granted, I'd be delighted if I could return to Ireland to pursue my father-in-law's ancestry, but that is not in the plans for quite a while. can hope. It would help, though, if my father's tree hadn't remained at 452 for the entire month of November, nor my father-in-law's at 1,392. That's no way to make progress.

With the onslaught of the holiday shopping season, there is one thing I can look forward to: seeing the results from all those DNA test kits which will be gifted to family members this Christmas or Hanukkah. I don't suppose we'll see the bulge in our match lists until well into January, but least Hanukkah comes early this year (beginning the evening of December 12), giving a jump start on getting those kits back in to the lab. Besides, I'm curious to see whether my ordering yet another kit from MyHeritage DNA will be the key opening the door to more European matches for my father's elusive line.

Right now, our DNA situation stands rather still. I have 2,562 matches at Family Tree DNA, up thirty one from last time, a nice jump. My husband has 1,625 there, up twelve. At AncestryDNA, my count of matches (fourth cousin and closer) increased by only two—hurry up, holiday sales!—but I have 771 matches, which is enough to keep me busy. My husband has 388, up five, so it looks like things are slowing down for him, as well. At 23andMe, the only place where my husband has more matches than I do, he's got 1,181 and I have 1,134. Of course, that's the company where our numbers shrink for almost every tally, but this time, my husband didn't lose any from the previous count, though I lost four matches. Checking this at the end of the year will be interesting.

We've yet to see how the holiday season will impact research progress. Though life in general gets more hectic in this last month of the year, at least many regular obligations take a hiatus during the month of December. Hopefully, in the rest of the month, I'll be able to squeeze in a few more hours of research before closing the year out with my last report on New Year's Eve.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Desperately Seeking Stories

It's gotten so bad, even my daughter's friends are sending suggestions. I'm finding myself inexorably pulled away from the stories I've loved so much and into the morass of unadulterated genealogy. I am drowning in begats, with no delightful details to put flesh on the bones of those names, dates and places. If we must pin down the date of the crime, couldn't we at least get the chance to learn a bit more about the whodunit?

So my daughter's friend suggests taking a drive up to the foothills. After all, those were the same hills that drew people from all over the world, at the height of the California gold rush. So many came there, made their fortune—or went bust—and returned home, wherever home used to be. But many stayed on and called home towns with picturesque names like Angels Camp, Railroad Flat, or Jenny Lind.

Over the years, those California transplant forty niners surely received letters from folks back home, sometimes even letters containing photographs of sister's new beau or brother's new set of twins.

Fast forward one hundred sixty years or so, and those photos end up in antique shops. Of which there are several up in those same foothills. That's where this friend came in: she suggested I go looking for more stories up in the back corners of the antique stores up there. Surely there will be some CdVs up there with a name stuck on the back. Perhaps that would be worth a story to pursue.

When I first started this blog, it was with the intent of sharing all the family stories I had already located about the many branches of our families. In both my own and my husband's family, those stories abounded, making for some easy sharing. As the weeks—then months, then years—flew by, there still were more stories to share, many which only made their appearance after a serious stint of research.

Now, I'm beginning to wonder: is there no one else in this family with a story to discover? I'm adding at least a couple hundred names to the various trees I'm researching on a biweekly basis, including confirming documentation about the details of their genealogy—those dreary dates of birth, marriage and death. I'm also following the trail of each of these new adds decade by decade with each census enumeration. Included with that is trailing the line of each sibling in that generation, then researching the descendants of those same siblings, following the same protocol of documentation.

And yet, no new stories. Maybe it is true: farmers make a boring lot. Hard working, but unremarkable. Nobody is off to seek his fortune, or gain the glory of a hero's life in a war. Nobody has gone off to college to break out of the mold and better himself. Nobody's even played the part of the town scoundrel or landed himself in jail. Nothing that even hints of a grand story.

It may turn out that I'm forced to take that drive up to the foothills, after all. If that's where the stories are, sure, I'll try my hand at poking through dusty bins in the back of antique shops. Who knows? Maybe I'll find another family treasure just waiting to be sent back home to Ireland.


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Urge to Organize

That urge to organize my DNA results lists has struck again. Especially now, not only considering my expansion to consider matches beyond the fourth cousin level but also because I just sprung for a Cyber Monday sale to add a fourth DNA testing company (MyHeritage), I've got to more finely hone my system for keeping track of correspondence with all those matches.

Since I do most of my contact via email for DNA matches, I've already set up folders for each of the family members for whom I serve as administrator. Now, for five individuals times up to three testing companies—plus GEDmatch results—I'm thinking it might help to differentiate that folder system a bit more. And if I migrate any other family members' raw data to that fourth testing company, it will make sense to set up a subcategory for each company under each family member's folder.

I may be over-thinking this a bit. The urge to also set up sub-categories of "answered" versus "not answered" is strong—I want a way to separate out the pending from the solved cases, to know what work still needs to be done. And the idea of finding a way to sub-categorize by surname headings is also pushing me. If nothing else, I want a way to split everything into "maternal" versus "paternal" branch categories.

The possibilities keep mushrooming. What started out as a simple pursuit of grouping ancestors' descendants by similarity of genetic background is exploding into a complex project begging for management tools more akin to PERT diagrams or Gantt charts than email folders.

The worst of it is the sense that, if all systems are worked just right, I'll turn this DNA mountain of mystery matches into the mole hill it more rightly deserves to be. That sense may well be deceiving me. There may not be any magic solution to figure out how these thousands of people match me; no matter how well I organize my system, the only way to really know that may well be to do the hard work of building others' trees for them. I may have to find the path from my door to that of my match's most recent common ancestor, myself.

On the other hand, figuring out the connection with a DNA match can be deceptively easy. I write an introductory email to my match, my match actually answers it, we exchange links to our respective family trees, we find a mutual surname, and bingo! We find the answer. Whenever that happens, it always startles me, because the occurrence seems so relatively rare. I start thinking I must do penance to turn that situation around, when it's likely that is not what needs to be done, at all.

What does need to be done still eludes me, though more organization will certainly help keep track of progress. Or at least assuage my sense of needing to get something done. But how to measure progress, when the end lies beyond a murky shadow, is hard to determine.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Never Say Never

With well over a thousand matches for each of the family's DNA kits I manage, I had long ago promised myself I'd limit my frustration by only pursuing those matches whose relationship was likely to be fourth cousin or closer. After all, it would have to be a dedicated researcher who could come up with a reliable, documented tree stretching back to the fourth great grandparent which would be necessary to go beyond that point of relationship. Granted, there are plenty of serious genealogists out there with trees numbering in the tens of thousands of relatives, but the great majority of my matches who don't have the dreaded "No family tree" label have trees with less than one thousand members—often, less than one hundred. Not much of a potential for locating most recent common ancestors among those sparse familial branches.

In this season of reconsideration, when I'm revisiting my protocols for sorting through this haystack of disparate matches, I'm beginning to see my way around that dictum. At Ancestry DNA, at least, segmenting my results by using their "Shared Ancestor Hints" filter has demonstrated the value of including the more distant cousins in my viewfinder.

In fact, using this approach has led to a few observations. Easiest to see, among those new insights, is that quite a few of my distant matches actually share their own surname with a surname prominent in my family tree. Of course I'm going to check out the results for a distant cousin who himself bears the surname Broyles or McClellan, for instance, since those names are part of my own genealogical heritage. While that approach might seem naive for someone searching their Jones or Smith heritage, it is a gimme for people researching hard-to-find names like Taliaferro or Aktabowski. Not too many of those around, you know.

Two other observations popped up, now that I've shifted from my old policy of never going beyond fourth cousin, but they seem to contradict each other. The one thing I had long ago noticed was that, at least at Ancestry DNA, the estimated level of relatedness usually seemed spot on—and when giving a range (say, "third to fourth cousin"), the end result usually settled with the closer relationship.

However, these two observations broke from that pattern. In the one, my kit would be estimated to compare with a match at a certain level, and then fall short of that. In the other, my kit would turn out to match the other person at a more distant level than predicted.

Several of my husband's matches were predicted to be more distant relationships than they actually turned out to be. For instance, one match slated to be within the range of fifth to eighth cousin turned out to be a third cousin, once removed. Another "distant cousin" proved to be his fourth cousin, rather than the fifth to eighth cousin it was predicted to be.

Granted, some of those were near-misses. But in exploring this new world of distant cousins—which, previous to this point, had been off limits by my own policy—I observed something. In these lines, which all happened to be related to my husband's mother, looking at the details of the matches' trees confirmed that they, like my husband, had more than one route to relatedness. Yes, that means they were their own cousins. But it also means that there is something in their genetics which foils the algorithms for deducting which level of relatedness the two parties should be.

On the flip side, my own mother's lines have inter-relatedness, solely by virtue of being early colonists in a vast—and vastly empty—new continent. Repeated inter-marriages among extended family members over the generations should predictably produce results similar to those of my husband's family. But in some cases, I see the opposite result.

Particularly in the lines involving my Lewis, Meriwether, Gilmer and Taliaferro iterations, the relationship turned out to be more distant. One match, for instance, was predicted to be of a fourth cousin level, but turned out to be fifth cousins, once removed. Another supposed fourth cousin turned out to be a seventh cousin.

I'm sure we'll all see surprises in this new world of genetic genealogy. Some will come with scientific explanations in hand to help us understand the dynamics behind the aberrations. Other situations may end up, hanging around on the street corner, waiting for someone to come up with the reasons why it turned out that way.

One thing is sure, though: if I had never bothered to explore these far distant relationships, I probably wouldn't have noticed such anomalies hiding in my genetic outliers. With the more finely-honed tools, though, there needn't be any reason to shy away from exploring these even more remote relationship possibilities. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Difference Four Days can Make

Just as I am agonizing over the thousands of DNA matches I can't fathom in my own family's lists, AncestryDNA issues a press release with the astounding news: in the four days from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, they "more than tripled the number of kits sold during the same period in 2016."

While that is indeed news, it doesn't present the entire picture. We need to have a number to help us get our heads around this nugget of information, and The DNA Geek was just the one to do the math. In her own blog post, she estimated that, since Ancestry sold about 560,000 DNA kits last Thanksgiving weekend, "more than tripled" would mean sales exceeding 1.7 million kits for the 2017 Thanksgiving weekend.

There is a corollary to that news, of course. According to Ancestry's press release, this turn of events marks the first time the year-to-date number of kits sold exceeds the entire count of Ancestry subscribers.

That's right: that means even more of those mystery cousins sans family trees. And we're just the ones to help them out.

While you and I—and the genealogical societies we belong to—may not have foreseen that turn of events, we may find ourselves standing in the exact path of a tsunami of interest (or at least questions) regarding what to do with all this "stuff." Now that nearly two million more DNA customers will be opening their pretty packages—and eventually taking their first peek at those colorful ethnicity reports—they may begin wondering, "What's next?"

You and I already know that "what's next" may include a learning curve whose arc rivals that of the tsunami of interest we're already eyeing with caution. While I can easily see that such circumstances may evolve to insert genealogical societies straight into a love-hate relationship with facts like these, we need to focus on the up side to the situation.

For one thing, more test kits out there eventually will translate into more matches for all of us. That is a good thing, especially for those of us still struggling just to pinpoint our immigrant origins. It's the enormity of the possibility, though, that astounds me: if the Ancestry DNA database already crested six million as of last October, this past weekend's sales nudge the eight million mark.

Will any of those eight million customers be interested in a personalized, hands-on approach to learning more about their DNA results?

For the first time, this past fall, our genealogical society experimented with offering a beginner's workshop in using DNA testing to augment family history research. We offered the workshop at two different library settings, and were pleased with the response. Indeed, a third library requested us to get our show on the road and bring it to their city.

Perhaps because DNA testing seems relatively new and unknown, I am still surprised when the first thing strangers ask me is, "Does that test really work?" The new normal, in the world of family history, may turn out to be a scenario in which, when people think the word "genealogy," they automatically connect it with "genetic." This is what is happening, I'd like to note, not with brainiac academics, but with man-on-the-street genealogical novices.

The opportunity to step up and provide hands-on, personalized training to people who are brand new to the world of genealogy is right at our doorstep now. The chance to meet a community need may well be the shot in the arm so needed by flagging societies worried that online databases had sounded the death knell for genealogical organizations. When those online services are running sales reports like this, boots-on-the-ground genealogical societies like ours certainly can remain alive and well.   

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Revisiting the DNA Maze

In the past five years, I've been testing family members to help figure out our family's mutual ancestors and their immigrant stories. It seemed like the ideal solution to genealogical quandaries like my paternal grandfather's origins—a secret seemingly taken to the grave with him—or my orphaned second great grandmother's parentage.

Five years and thousands of unconfirmed DNA matches later, it doesn't seem like the ideal solution any more. In fact, I feel swamped with the amount of data I still need to sift through, and especially the endless maze of unrecognized surnames. Last week, I decided to revamp my approach to gain a sense of direction about those many matches linked to each of the test kits I oversee.

Thankfully, fellow genealogy bloggers jarred me into deciding that, with their posts last week.

The first post came from the consummate researcher Randy Seaver, who never seems to run out of genea-blogging material to discuss. A week ago Monday, Randy posted a "Genea-Pourri" of observations, including a statement about his DNA test results. He mentioned,
My AncestryDNA Shared Ancestors increased from 231 to 237, but all of them are really distant relatives - 5th to 8th cousins. 

I was surprised to read a number that low. Only 237 matches? How could that be? After all, Randy has well documented colonial roots, as well as ancestors back in England sporting dates far earlier than I could even begin to imagine finding in my own family.

But then, I looked closer at what he said. This wasn't merely a count of all his DNA matches; it was specific to one category: AncestryDNA Shared Ancestors. Even then, I had to assume he meant those shaky-leaf "Shared Ancestor Hints," that handy section which shows how the customer's tree matches with the DNA match's own tree.

Alright, then: 237 is a pretty respectable number, after all. I only have sixty eight for my results.

That, however, opened my mind to explore something else. If I just went through this specific list, methodically, and reviewed which of these matches still need to be added to my own tree, would that help flesh out enough hooks upon which to hang some other, errant, DNA match names? I decided to add that to my DNA to-do list, to see what would happen.

While I'm still in the process of working through that list, I have noticed a few things. For one, I previously shied away from any matches more distant than fourth cousin. Genetic material sometimes drops off the radar, once you step beyond that level of relationship (and sometimes that happens with relationships as close as third cousins). But having distant cousins from connections to American colonial families, I experienced two divergent surprises when I took a look at these more distant relationships: one, in which cousins turned out to be much closer than predicted, and another, in which cousins turned out to be more distant than predicted. In any event, the exercise is showing me the profitability in pursuing those more distant matches, as long as both parties have robust, well documented family trees.

About that same time, another blogger's post provided some useful reminders. In this case, it was Donna Moughty's post, "Making Sense of Your Matches on Ancestry." Among her many practical tips, she shared a useful chart she had found on the ISOGG wiki, the "Cousinship Chart."

Another item with AncestryDNA suggestions came to me via Gail Dever's "Crème de la crème" week in review: a post by mother-daughter research team Diana Elder and Nicole Dyer, "Ancestry DNA: Three Tools you may not be Using." Although I've already been employing their advice on exploring shared matches with those who don't have a tree posted online, it was their last tip that earned a place on my new DNA to-do list: instead of ignoring the treeless, search for "unlinked" family trees in the entries for my matches tagged with "no family tree" on my results page.

That pretty much was the same suggestion provided by another genetic genealogy blogger, Kitty Cooper, who observed that some trees are "just not linked" to the DNA match's results. Kitty goes beyond that with more suggestions on "How to get your Ancestry match to respond." Yet more items to add to my weekly DNA routine.

While there are several tasks I routinely do to keep up with the regular addition of yet more DNA matches at the three companies where my family has tested, I think these additional suggestions will help me target processes that will bring more rapid results. It's great to know, in theory, the names of all these distant cousins; what I really want to do is see them accurately placed in my family tree. Hopefully, doing so will unlock some research doors and lead me through the maze to some answers to those brick wall questions.

Above: Carceri Plate VII, from etchings by Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Why DNA?

With the holiday sales upon us—Black Friday thankfully behind us, but Cyber Monday unfolding before us right now—it probably has not been lost upon you that you can give the gift of family heritage with the present of a simple DNA test. Not only are the prices right, no matter which company you choose, but the airwaves are saturated with ads boasting promises even the least genealogically astute can grasp.

I, for one, am glad for this heightened awareness of the quest for family history. Anyone who has already participated in DNA testing can welcome the addition of yet more matches with the holiday sales influx. But as many questions as I field from strangers who discover I teach genealogy classes, the great majority of them focus on DNA testing—and reveal the average customer's viewpoint on the process. Hint: that viewpoint is often far afield from a thorough knowledge of what genetic genealogy can offer a customer.

Especially since those holiday sales are prompting heightened interest, it may be time for us to bone up on the reasons why a person might want to buy a DNA test, and what can be expected from such an experience.

While the question I get often seeks a bipolar response—should I or shouldn't I?—I like to reframe the issue and redirect it to the potential customer: just why does that person wish to pursue DNA testing? What does such a customer hope to receive for their effort?

There are a number of divergent reasons why people have pursued the avenue of genetic genealogy. An obvious example of a reason that might not be shared by other customers is that of the adoptee wishing to discover his or her true roots. A similar situation might be that of an African-American, who, despite even knowing his or her parentage and family history for the past one hundred fifty years, then encounters a brick wall almost as unyielding as that of the adopted person.

There are other reasons as well. Some people may have remembered whisperings from their childhood indicating an unsuspected parentage or unusual heritage somewhere in their ancestry, and want to confirm or rule out family stories. Less clandestine yet more commonplace is the reason many people test: they want to see what science can tell them about their ethnicity.

Of course, with five distinct testing companies vying for the average customer's business, it seems bewildering to ascertain which one is the best choice. But fingering the explanation for your own reasons for testing, ahead of making the purchase, will help avoid misplaced expectations—and possibly insure that you spend no more money on the process than is necessary.

For instance, people who are testing to find matches who can team up with them on their genealogical research—sharing the effort to locate a mystery ancestor, for instance—would do best to seek out the company with the largest database of DNA customers (currently Ancestry DNA). It would also be important to select a company which shares information on matches in the first place—something to consider, at least for the moment, if you are toying with the special claims of Living DNA, which is not yet prepared to provide match information to its customers. And, if this were your DNA testing goal, it would also be smart to select a company whose customers have already identified themselves as willing to be in the game—the ancestor-comparing routine in which the health-report customers at 23andMe aren't necessarily interested in participating.

While holiday sales are always welcome, some DNA customers can find themselves financially involved, more than they intended, and it's good to understand that up front. Adoptees who are really earnest about finding their birth parents understand that they will need to test at each of the current DNA companies—even at sale prices, a price tag that adds up to a significant investment. And those with the goal of knowing the most they can about their deep ancestry, or the roots of their surname, may become involved in the specialized tests for Y-DNA for their patriline, or mitochondrial DNA for their matriline—tests only available at one company, Family Tree DNA.

Since DNA testing prices are at their best right now, I'm thinking it's a good time to review my own reasons for testing, determine whom to test further in my family, and how to go about streamlining the process of sifting through the results. After all, the question of "Why DNA?" may be applicable for first time customers, but it is also a helpful guide when we go back, after the fact, to sort through all the matches that resulted from our initial decision to buy.

After seeing several other bloggers' posts on the subject in the past week (and why not, with all the great sales going on right now?), I've been revamping my own approach in maintaining my match lists, and rethinking some ideas which may seem basic—so basic that we've all forgotten their usefulness as we wade deeper into the process of sorting out all this information. In honor of all these fabulous buying opportunities, I'm taking the week to revisit the issue of expectations and exasperations in the face of my own thousands of unconnected DNA matches.

Above: Crying boy at midday meal at the farmhouse; oil on canvas by German artist August Heyn (1837 - 1920); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's Time for Holiday Nostalgia

We never put up our Christmas tree this early in the season, but yep, it's up now. Probably a taller one than we've ever had before; I think the Christmas tree lot mislabeled the height. Thankfully, we have a living room ceiling to go with it.

Last night, Christmas carols infused the atmosphere while we breathed in the pine scent of the fresh-cut tree, just as we have for countless Decembers in the past. The lights were up, the angel and star in place, and the branches just awaiting their customary decorations. Only problem was: it's not even December yet. Christmas, as of last night, was still a month away. As for putting up our tree, at least in our family, we were getting it done about two weeks early.

Our family has never been one for the tradition (at least around here, where Thanksgiving temperatures hover around seventy degrees Fahrenheit) of setting up the tree the minute the turkey leftovers are packed away in the fridge. Unlike our California neighbors, our family has usually gone for a more sedate timetable. Sometimes, we've erred on the opposite side of the spectrum, including the time my mother rushed out to the store in a panic the day before Christmas because she hadn't yet found time to buy a live tree before company was coming over. (Now you know where I get my procrastinator's tendencies; my DNA comes by them honestly.)

There's a reason why we've reversed course around here this year: once again, my husband is off for another teaching assignment in the Middle East, but this time, he won't arrive home until just before Christmas. If he is going to get his chance to soak in the holiday cheer, it will have to be A.S.A.P.

So even though it's still November, we listen to the same songs we've heard recycled each holiday season, and remember the mood that surrounded us the last time we heard each tune. Some of those songs reach back farther in our memories than others—some to the earliest glimpses of childhood, other more recent arrivals coming fresh with newer scenes.

My daughter, having spent a fall semester at college in Ireland, used to mention that, in Europe, the stores rolled out the Christmas ambience more gradually—a trinket here, in early November, additional hints of seasonal color a week later, then the usual lights and decor throughout the month of December. I am thinking, besides our uncustomary earlier start, our household will follow suit this year. We've got the early start now, so why rush it? Adding a bit each week will seem so leisurely, after our customary last-minute-rushing style of past years.

I remember years when we baked enough cookies to fill a dozen tins or more for gifts, or assembled gift baskets to distribute for our annual caroling event at church. Not so much, any more. It seems the less we do, the more busy we feel. I'm not sure how we managed that kind of schedule downsizing, but it makes me yearn for a simple season. One filled with carols, quiet visits with good friends, and heartfelt moments with family.

It seems so strange to think the magic of Christmas could change so much over the years, but I think it has. I wonder how much our celebrations are like those our grandparents remembered as children. The singular image of the children receiving their one gift—an orange—in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series imprinted itself on my mind long ago, and though I've never experienced the simplicity of a Christmas like that, I wonder how it would feel to have that suffice as a holiday blessing. Is our life so different today that we can't even relate to the context of that lifestyle?

Above: "La Famiglia," circa 1894 by Italian artist Cesare Vianello; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wondering Why

Have you ever questioned why a person might want to do genealogical research? I mean, why do we do this? Is there a basic human need to know something more about our roots?

While I realize some people pursue the details of their family history because it facilitates a religious objective, that is certainly not why all people are curious about their family origins. I'm not even sure it's on account of the American penchant for ferreting out the sources of their "Heinz 57" heritage; obviously, there are people around the world who would like to know more about their family's story.

This type of question can turn into something of a dialog with our inner five year old. After all, the reason I want to know about my roots is because my father's paternal line is an absolute mystery, a blank slate taunting me to fill in the lines. But my inner five year old insists: "Why?"

Why do I need to fill in those empty lines on the pedigree chart, indeed? Because I'm hoping it will draw me closer to the answer to the question about my paternal grandfather's origin.

But that inner five year old persists: "Why?"

Yes, why do I need to know where the man came from? I suppose I could go on and play the game, dredging up yet another answer to rationalize just why I do this crazy chase, seeking hints the past has hidden in oblivion—but I know I'll only be faced with another question: "Why?"

I guess I'm not really sure why I feel so compelled to find and document my family's past. Perhaps if you were to play the "why" game with your own inner five year old, you might arrive at a more solid conclusion. But perhaps you wouldn't. The spooky thing might be that there is no rational answer, other than "I just do."

Perhaps in the grand, cosmic sense of things, there is a motivating factor inducing some of us to serve as our own family's historian. Who knows. Perhaps knowing the answer people are likely to give might help guide organizations like local genealogical societies to more successfully plan programs to attract a larger audience. Or could that be a bit too pragmatic a viewpoint for something with an answer as ethereal as this?

Above: Untitled painting by Italian artist Francesco Peluso, born 1836, courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Holiday Afterglow

I'm not sure I'm ready for this yet...but cue up the Christmas tunes, grab a peppermint mocha and a box of Christmas cards, and let the season officially begin.

I'll let the holidays officially evolve in that more traditional and mellow mode, rather than jostling with the crowds to scramble for a bargain. My shopping style is more incisive, anyhow: dash in, grab, pay and go. Easy. It'll save for a Monday morning early in December.

As much as I struggle with Thanksgiving Day, itself, I'm quite at home with the fact that it ushers in such a pleasant season. I hope yours was a memorable Thanksgiving Day, and that you have bright plans for this holiday season, as well. Whether your traditions have you firmly tied to the twentieth century, or suited up to do battle on this Black Friday, may this bring the peace and fellowship you are hoping for in the upcoming holiday season.

Above: Charles Auguste Romain Lobbedez, "Family Time," oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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