Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Not Too Early — But Not Too Late


Exploring the history of land grants in the British North American colony of Virginia has been an interesting side trip on my route to discover what prompted my Massachusetts ancestors to move to the wilderness surrounding the Holston River. I knew that my William Tilson had served in the French and Indian War before marrying his bride in 1762 and moving to southwestern Virginia. But it has taken a lot of digging to determine just how the land in the area might have gotten doled out to willing settlers.

One of the first land grants I found information on was issued in 1745. That year, of course, predates my Tilsons' arrival in the Virginia colony by a considerable amount. Still, to explore the mechanisms of how colonists obtained land in that era, I decided to follow the paper trail.

The 1745 grant was made by the Virginia governor and Council of State to a gentleman by the name of James Patton. His was not a modest receipt of property: the grant entailed a swath of land totaling one hundred thousand acres. The only stipulations, apparently, were that he could not select lands within the boundaries of claims of three other grantees: Lord Fairfax, Benjamin Borden and William Beverley.

In the ensuing years, there has been much interest in the land grants of that same James Patton. Records of a subsequent—1749—land grant he received are housed at the Library of Virginia. An interesting assessment of the longstanding—and possibly suspect—business dealings of James Patton and William Beverley has been offered in the bulletin of a local historical society.

James Patton was not the only one surveying large grants of land received from the Virginia government. Just a few years later, another explorer, Thomas Walker, joined with several others to form a company which received land grants, as well. That company was known as the Loyal Company, and among its founders were men with surnames which make up part of my own heritage: Gilmer, Harvie, Lewis and Meriwether.

Those land grants—of 1745 and 1748—were too early to include my Tilsons' arrival in southwestern Virginia, of course. But in looking at a meandering report I've mentioned previously, an online reprint from a 1937 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, I noticed author Ralph M. Brown observed,
From the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1764, until 1768, nothing of importance occurred in Southwest Virginia beyond the visits of the Long Hunters and the surveyors for the land companies, few settlements being made.
And,
The great influx of settlers into Southwestern Virginia and Kentucky did not begin until after 1794.

While 1745 was too early a process to include my Tilson settlers in the area, that date of 1794 for a "great influx" of settlers was definitely too late. I needed to find something in the middle to help me understand just what it was that inspired a newlywed William Tilson to opt to leave home and extended family to set up housekeeping with his bride in the wilderness of southwest Virginia.

Fortunately, other "current events" of the time period pointed me to some possibilities. Part of the business woes of the Loyal Company involved fallout from the politics of the era. Once source mentioned "the crown rejected further extension of the grant" held by the Loyal Company as part of a ban on western settlement in 1763.

For those astute history buffs among us, that date of 1763 may have rung a bell—but not for me, unfortunately, as I had to slog through pages and pages before I even realized that date sounded familiar.

And it should have sounded familiar to me, if for nothing else than that William Tilson—who had served with the British in the French and Indian War—was by that year free to marry, to travel, and to relocate his residence, simply on account of the end of his military duties during war time. In other words, with the war now over, the obligatory treaty had to be drawn up. To the victors went the land of the defeated, so Britain now held claim to lands once under French control.

In addition to that, other agreements fell into place. Among them was the provision in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbidding all settlement west of a line drawn along the Appalachians. Bottom line: that suddenly rendered void any land grants which had been given by the British government to those American colonists who had fought in the war.

This opens up two additional points to pursue. One: that there were land grants issued by the Crown to colonists for military service before 1763. Second, if that were so, and if that was what instigated the Tilsons' move to Virginia, how was it that he remained there on that now-not-legally-granted property? For William and Mary Tilson remained in southwest Virginia at least through the dates of birth of the seven children I've been able to locate—a stretch of time from 1763 through 1776, and possibly much longer.

Every time I've pried open the answer to one question, all that pops out is yet another question.     

 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daniel Boone Was Here


Oftentimes, I've run into beginning genealogical researchers who get jazzed at the thought their ancestors might be related to someone famous. Kings come to mind here, but also generals or explorers. Once the possibility enters their mind of a connection to greatness, it unfortunately seems to nudge the research work in the wrong direction.

Perhaps as a counter-move in the hope of avoiding such weakness, I've automatically been dismissing any notion of a connection to well-known names of American history. You might have noticed that I glossed over some references, in links last week, to folk hero Daniel Boone.

The more I delve into the history of the Wilderness Road and the land in southwestern Virginia where my Tilson ancestors decided to settle, I can't help but acknowledge that that very place was one in which Daniel Boone used to roam.

In the region around the three forks of the Holston River in Virginia—the place where William and Mary Marcie Tilson settled and where all of their children were born—the way was made possible by adventurers, explorers and land surveyors who passed that way before the Tilsons arrived in 1762 or 1763.

Since this is such a new area of research for me, I've been absorbing an immense amount of material to get up to speed on the necessary background details. Swamped with information overload, perhaps that's why I gravitated to a website with the kind of simple terms best suited for younger students. Sometimes, it's just easier to learn new material by reverting to the simple, concise explanations presented in books intended for grade school students.

In reading one entry at a website called Tennessee4Me, after getting the lay of the land, information-wise, I scanned the article for names of people and geographic locations to help provide keywords for further searching.

That's where I saw the mention of Daniel Boone. Only one year after William and Mary Marcie Tilson's oldest child was born in 1763, Daniel Boone was somewhere in the same area, exploring the Holston valley for a land speculator.

Of course, by the time Daniel Boone was covering the area, the Tilsons had already settled there. Though the name introduces that bright-shiny aspect to the research, what I really needed was a clue as to how land was being distributed before Daniel Boone got there to check it all out.

The same article gave me a few more leads from earlier years. The one name which caught my eye was that of Virginia "adventurer" Thomas Walker, who arrived in the region in 1748 and returned again in 1750. He was key in an entity known as the Loyal Company—a detail I thought might be worth following up on. 
 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Getting Lost in the Details


Can you understand your ancestors without understanding the times in which they were living?

In trying to determine not only why but how my Tilson ancestors left their home in Massachusetts colony after their marriage in 1762 to end up in southwest Virginia, I'm having to absorb a lot of Virginia history. And, not being a speed reader, I'm learning a lot of detail I hadn't anticipated including in my pursuit of family history.

Virginia, like the Florida of my McClellan ancestors, is one of those locations in which I have family roots, but have never traveled through, myself. Thus, it makes the research that much harder, for the place names don't evoke any memories of spatial relationships. I have no idea which two town names might constitute a short trip of a few hours, and which represent distant journeys. Geographic identifiers, such as the Blue Ridge mountains or the Piedmont, the James River or the Shenandoah Valley, mean nothing to me. I have to slog through corollary material like maps and documents to guide me through the explanatory texts I hope will answer the question initiating this search.

What, indeed, made these crazy ancestors travel all that way? And what made them think this was the way to get there?

And so, as I try to retrace my ancestors' steps, I'm wandering down detours of my own, reading summaries of a history so intricate yet seemingly so disconnected from the roots I thought I had.

Take this website found on colonial Virginian expansion, courtesy of Google, explaining the several treaties drawn up in the 1700s which opened the way for westward expansion of the colonies. (Did you know Virginia claimed land rights all the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean?)

Even as the article meanders through details I once hoped would easily provide me with an answer, I feel as if I'm coming up short when the immigrant pathways outlined in the text mention Scots-Irish traveling on foot to the destinations I thought were the communities formed by my Mayflower English settlers. Somehow, these details don't seem to mix.

And yet, I read on, somehow hoping these recitations of history will lead me to some slight clue producing the answer I'm seeking.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Only Ninety Eight More Shopping Days . . .


It may seem premature to even mention it, but according to the Christmas Countdown Clock, there are only ninety eight more shopping days until the year-end's big gift-giving extravaganza.

Not that I'm into shopping or anything. Our family has graduated from the big fling holiday style; we keep things to a moderate level. What I am looking at are all the possibilities inherent in the holiday season to remind our fellow family members that their family is rich with heritage—and that we are just the ones to share it.

Face it: we've spent days on end, collecting details about ancestors none of our family ever met—let alone heard of. Granted, some of our discoveries may have been less than dramatic, but there are others for whom a story line may have piqued our interest—and can for those with whom we share it.

How to share, though, is the trick. If your family is filled with people whose eyes glaze over, the minute the slightest mention of the dear departed is made, you may have a challenge on your hands to rouse anyone's fascination. But there are ways to share your discoveries, and this season may be the best time in which to prepare.

During a genealogy class I taught this weekend, someone asked about how to scan documents, and I mentioned the Flip-Pal scanner. As an example, I described one of the most novel uses I had heard about using the device: inspired by the Flip-Pal's ability to "stitch" scans of small segments of large documents together, one researcher took this idea literally and scanned an heirloom quilt.

Another project I had heard of was when a woman was puzzling over how to preserve the ties she had inherited from her departed father. I've heard of people taking such ties and crafting them into a quilt, or arranging some in a shadow box, or any other way to transform this token of heritage into a form in which it could be visually shared and enjoyed.

There are any number of creative ways to share our family history with family, one sliver at a time. These brilliant ideas, however, never occur to us in a timely manner. They might pop into our head the night before the family descends on us for Thanksgiving, for instance, or at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. Not, at any rate, at any moment leaving us adequate time to prepare.

I've thought of making up calendar wall hangings, complete with photos marking significant dates of our ancestors: the day our great-grandparents got married, or the birthday of a grandparent. Sometimes these ideas are rather routine and simple, but when blended with stuff we all use everyday, they provide a practical mechanism for us to take a snippet of our research progress and get it out there for everyone to see and enjoy.

You have probably had a few ideas of your own—and if you are the crafty type, please share them with those of us who are creativity-challenged!—but the time to do something about such notions is not right before the holiday rush descends upon us. The time for those creative outbursts is now, when we can brainstorm on how to turn that genealogical-sharing dream into a reality in time for others to enjoy during the upcoming holiday season. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Oh, No! Whatever Has Befallen Us?


Just as the last of the conference-goers were returning home from the Federation of Genealogical Societies event at the beginning of September, I was revving up for presenting another series of classes for the fall semester. A new-to-me library system had requested I teach a workshop series on family history for their patrons. Along with a repeat performance at another library system, I had also been invited back to instruct a ten week series for a program hosted at a nearby community college.

Perhaps thanks to the big pockets and production capabilities of powerhouse genealogical corporations spreading the word, an ever-expanding number of people want to learn this stuff. They're turning out for local, in-person events where they can learn what they've always wondered about: how to trace their family's history.

With all this activity, lately, I've been somewhat preoccupied—enough, at least, to not dwell on the fact that I wish I could have been at that FGS conference, too.

Apparently, what I also missed, at the beginning of that same week, was the deconstruction of the FGS event by the number of social media participants who harangued each other on a topic which could be roughly described as "Why Conferences Are Now Pronounced Dead."

This topic, you may note, is a variation on a similar theme, "Why Genealogical Societies Are Now Pronounced Dead."

I've been oblivious of both of these facts, myself. Two respected analysts in the field, however, took on the issue and provided their assessment of the situation in blog posts of their own.

The first of the two to post was Christine Woodcock of Scottish Genealogy Tips and Tidbits, who mentioned the online chatter revealing a sense that the FGS conference attendance was down. This observation led her to "wonder if large conferences are going the way of microfiche." Citing the prohibitive cost of registration, travel and hotel stays, she compared conferences to the "more convenient and less costly" options for learning, such as webinars.

Almost as if to underscore her point, just a week later, Legacy Family Tree Webinars decided to celebrate their business' seventh anniversary with a week of free access to their most popular webinars. Why, indeed, go through all the trouble and expense of travel when you can curl up at home and learn from the likes of Tom Jones, Lisa Louise Cooke or Diahan Southard?

Just one day after Christine Woodcock published her analysis, another genealogist weighed in with her take on the subject. Amy Johnson Crow reached back into her blog's archives, picked up an old post and spruced it up for a second appearance to address the subject once again. In a cordial rebuttal of her colleague's post, Amy focused on the attendance track records at a number of successful genealogical events to conclude, "Genealogy conferences and seminars are not dead."

Amy Johnson Crow laid the blame for this cyclical discussion at the feet of what she classified as two myths: first, that webinars and other online events are "killing conferences," and secondly, that in-person learning is an outmoded approach. She reminded her readers, "different people learn in different ways" and "there is room for all types of learning models in the genealogy world."

Thankfully, both writers proposed ways to follow up on this issue. I particularly appreciate Christine Woodcock's conclusion that we need to "adjust our thinking," based on an observation she made over interactions on a genealogical society's Facebook page:
Just as we have gone from thinking that the only way to do genealogy research was by writing letters, scouring microfiche and transcribing directories to being comfortable with researching online databases, we need to readjust our understanding of what constitutes membership. Those people [part of the society's Facebook page] do feel that they belong. That they are members. Even if they haven’t paid a fee or attended a meeting. This group is their tribe. We can’t overlook that.

More than that, though, I feel Amy Johnson Crow hit the core of the issue with her comment, "Let's stop the handwringing and do something about it." The angst that seems to be part of these incessant conversations reveals a certain circling-the-drain sense of doom. No, our society's events aren't going to grow up to become RootsTech. But that doesn't signal the demise of in-person events nor of the groups that host them.

There is something about the focus a group nurtures in its outlook. If societies begin harboring these opinions of shrinking return on their efforts, they may well reap what they sow in their mental outlook. On the other hand, for organization which realize that to grow, they need to expand their offerings to meet the needs of their potential as well as current constituents, they likely will set themselves on a path to success that will include the type of in-person events people vote with their feet and their pocketbook to attend.

Above all, to just bemoan a perceived changing tide of event hosting becomes a nonproductive stance. To adopt a proactive approach in developing and providing events that people will want to attend would by far be a more effective way to address the issue.



Friday, September 15, 2017

The Way Leading to That New Home


It took a long detour through the colonial history of Virginia in the 1700s just to figure out the way my Tilson ancestors may have taken to move from their settlement in southwestern Virginia to their new home in northeastern Tennessee.

Actually, the way wasn't very far—at least, that is, if I correctly identified the modern locations for those three hundred year old geographic identifiers.

The place where the Tilson family had settled, after leaving their parental homes in Massachusetts some time after William took Mary Marcie Ransom as his bride in 1762, was somewhere near a spot called Saint Clair. That, in turn, eventually became part of Washington County—which, as you can guess, has been carved up countless times since that 1763 arrival date.

At any rate, wherever the place was, it was on the south fork of what I've finally figured out must have been the Holston River. Finding all this out has taken several painstakingly tiny steps, of course, but still doesn't answer my question of how the family got from there—wherever "there" actually was—to the family's ultimate settlement in Washington County, Tennessee.

However, wandering around the Internet for the past few days, I've run across some details of the history of colonial migration. I became fairly certain my hunch to zero in on what was called the Wilderness Road might lead to some answers to my research questions.

Even trying to find out more about the Wilderness Road has been challenging. For one thing, the route went by more than one name. According to one resource, the route was also known as the Great Road or the Great Philadelphia Road.

Can you imagine telling people how to find your home—naming the street bearing your address—and then giving the name of two or three other streets, as well? If that sounds confusing, that about explains how I feel, trying to discern exactly where this ancient route once led.

There might be a reason for this confusion. For one thing, one researcher theorized that, depending on the destination of a traveler, the route might be called one thing, while those heading in the opposite direction would call it something else. Kind of like saying, "I'm on the road to Philadelphia" when heading north, yet, "I'm headed west" when traveling to those new settlements in the wilderness.

Or just go ahead and call it the Wilderness Road. After all, that was the point of the route: a way to access the new lands opening up for colonial settlement.

There was another problem about trying to figure out where this route once was: even academic researchers dispute this road's location. If the experts can't be certain where the route led, how can I determine whether this was the winding road that led my ancestors away from their Virginia door?

According to at least one report, the Wilderness Road leading west began at what is now Kingsport, Tennessee—close to the Washington County area of the state where my Tilsons settled, but certainly not what would convince them to leave their home in southwestern Virginia.

However, there may have been an entirely different route—or possibly just a different name for the same path—forming the basis for the road enticing my ancestors to leave their hard-won settlement in the Virginia wilderness. The foundation for this route, as it turns out, may have been a system of ancient pathways worn by generations of native people, now called by some The Great Indian Warpath.

In an annotated reprint of a 1937 article published in the William and Mary Quarterly containing satellite images on which are superimposed locations from the old trails, an explanation on page 506 of the original text delves into the geographic points on one branch of the Great Indian Warpath which likely led close to the Holston River settlement where the Tilsons had lived.

While this may help me understand just how my Tilson ancestors arrived in Washington County, Tennessee, the rest of this lengthy reprint also helped describe what else might have been happening at the time which might have encouraged people to move to these wilderness locations.

Even in colonial times, the government was offering land grants in the hopes of enticing immigrants to move farther west to form a buffer zone around the more established towns to the east. It would be well worth the research detour to examine just what else was going on in the colonies during the time when William Tilson married in Massachusetts in 1762 and moved to Virginia by 1763.   

Thursday, September 14, 2017

If Not Why, Perhaps How


As I'm struggling with the brick wall in my family history research, I've wanted to learn just why it was that the descendants of my Mayflower ancestors would have left their by-then-established settlement in Massachusetts to move to the backwoods of Virginia in 1763—and then pick up once again and relocate in northeastern Tennessee.

Just because I want to know the answer doesn't necessarily mean I will find the answer. After the journey I've been on to seek out that answer, the corresponding trip through local history of that era has convinced me that perhaps a more helpful question might be how those ancestors moved beyond their Virginia settlement to their stopping place in Washington County, Tennessee.

Googling and then following my nose has unearthed several helpful sites in this information gathering stage. I already knew that the area in question was once part of a place in the state of North Carolina dubbed the Washington District. After Tennessee statehood, that same location became the "mother county"—the oldest county—of the new state.

I've located lists that serve as finding aids to guide me to further resources as I try to sift through the details and determine just why—and how—my ancestors from Massachusetts eventually ended up in Washington County, Tennessee. Of course, the FamilySearch wiki for Washington County genealogical resources provides many links. Interestingly, so does the Tennessee Secretary of State's website, with two pages providing a list of resources and a more detailed bibliography.

Shifting my focus—rather than looking at what I could find about my ancestors' destination, checking what is available about the land they left—I found a website explaining the history of the old Washington County region of Virginia which contained the Holston River area where my Tilsons once lived.

Better yet, I located a page which explained why settlement in these far-west locations was urged: the government of colonial Virginia saw it as a great scheme for creating a "buffer zone" between more-established immigrant communities in the eastern portion of the colony and the ancient wilderness domain of native populations. To that end, by the 1740s, the government was authorizing land grants, such as the Patton Grant and the Loyal Company Grant.

Having located those resources, I began adding to my reading list. I've found a couple other online articles to read about the westward settlement, back in that era—one of which focuses on southwestern Virginia, the other on a more general review of settlement west of the Blue Ridge mountains.

But this was back in the 1740s. When I think of what must have been available to settlers back then, that's when my mind demands to know just how they managed to do what they did. How did they get to their destination? How did they even decide on that destination? For my Tilson, Davis, and Broyles ancestors, what brought them down the path they selected? In fact, what was the path?

Wondering about "how" led me to seek out articles on the way those ancestors got to their new home. That's when I started circling the details on one particular route, known by various names, but generally called the Wilderness Road. I decided it might be worth my while to see if that Wilderness Road was the route that might have led my wandering ancestors to the promise of better land that they might have been seeking. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Getting Back to Tennessee


Even in genealogy, when a person gets lost, it seems the default is to wander around in circles. Here I am, trying to trace a pathway from the Virginia home of three of my ancestral families—the Davis line, the Tilson line, and the Broyles line—to the first county in Tennessee, Washington County. While I don't seem to make much progress, I am picking up clues as I keep ringing the area.

I had traced my way to direct line ancestor Ozey Robert Broyles during my pursuit of D.A.R. membership, but hadn't followed the line much farther, since the D.A.R. connection then jumped to Ozey's wife's line. Now, it's time to work on his father and grandfather.

I've been perusing some books written on the line many years ago—for one, a manuscript drawn up by Arthur Leslie Keith, and a subsequent typewritten volume annotating the Keith work by John Kenneth Broyles. My goal in evaluating the findings in these manuscripts is to see what can be verified by current online resources—as well as, of course, building my tree on the Broyles line.

What arrested my attention, while reading these notes, is that while Ozey and his father, Aaron Broyles, lived in Pendleton District, South Carolina, Aaron had been born in Virginia, as had his father, Adam Broyles.

The interesting little detail hidden in the midst of that timeline connecting the Broyles' Virginia home and their new residence in South Carolina was that it wasn't a direct route that brought them from Virginia to South Carolina. There was an intermediate stop along the way.

That stop just happened to be in Washington County, Tennessee.

If what the Keith and Broyles manuscript asserts about Adam Broyles is correct, I would love to get my hands on some old, old land records in Washington County. While I await the chance to do that, though, one other helpful document will be Adam's will, which can be located among the records in Washington County.

Apparently, though the rest of the family ended up in South Carolina, Ozey's grandfather Adam had been a landholder in Washington County. The years he was there actually predate Tennessee statehood, for his date of death there was likely in 1782.

Of course, I'm hoping to discover just why Adam Broyles left his home in Culpeper, Virginia—and why his family's ultimate route to South Carolina took this detour to northeastern Tennessee. But I also find it interesting to have stumbled upon this detail of the land holdings in Washington County, for years later, his young grandson left his home in South Carolina to take charge of his father's property in Washington County, Tennessee.

I never could understand why the family had land so far from their home in South Carolina. Perhaps now, I'm getting a glimpse at the reason why.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Clustering Data


When it comes to trying to align my three families who converged on that tiny spot in northeastern Tennessee, I've been at a lack for connecting the dots. There is no question, though, that my Davis, Tilson and Broyles ancestors all ended up in Washington County, Tennessee. It's just a question of when—and, preceding that, how.

Just exploring what I've been able to find online, tucked away in various genealogical nooks and crannies, just this past month, I discovered that my Broyles ancestors may have been in Tennessee even before they showed up in South Carolina. I never could quite understand why my second great grandfather Thomas Broyles left his childhood home in the Pendleton District of South Carolina to live in the comparatively remote other side of the mountains in Tennessee. Now, it appears it may have been because the family had property over there first.

These things may not be items that we can just discover by the brute force of researching everything there is to find about late 1700s Virginia and Tennessee. I'm convinced there has got to be a handier way to uncover clues.

I know that in DNA research, when there is a puzzling match between two distant cousins, one way to seek a solution to the question of how they relate is to gather all the data and look for connections. The theory is, for people to relate, someone from one side of the family had to be in the same place at the same time as someone from the other side of the family.

Yes, I know: this is not rocket science. But sometimes the obvious needs to smack us in the face before we put it to good use. If that technique has come in handy for determining possible scenarios for DNA matches, perhaps clustering data can serve to encourage clues to percolate up through the piles of names and dates swamping me now.

Not that I'm looking forward to building a database of where and when everyone lived in the same location—that's grunt work for sure. But if it yields any results, it will be worth the effort.

Though my eyes have been opened to possibilities on the Broyles side of the equation, for the Davis line, I haven't even been able to connect my line in Tennessee to their origins across the state line. My third great grandfather, James C. Davis, was born in 1795. Though I can find a given name for his mother, thanks to her having survived until at least the 1850 census—at least, I presume that ninety year old Davis woman in James' household is his mother—I don't know his father's name.

Nor can I determine for sure where those Davis ancestors were born. Why did the enumerator have to scrawl something that looks like it could simultaneously represent "VA" and "NC"? This is not helping.

These are some reasons why I just need to isolate specific fields for several people in the family, then check what subsequent census records say—then, go and do the same for everyone else in this family grouping.

For instance, in that same 1850 census, the household included someone with the name William Tilson. Tilson, of course, is the third surname I'm seeking in this northeastern Tennessee settlement. Since James' wife Rachel was a Tilson, and since she had a brother by that name and of that approximate age, it is likely he was the extra person in the Davis household. Why was he living there? Where was he born? And what brought him to this place?

The answers to some questions are not always supplied as one-liners. Some answers take a lot of sifting through extraneous material before they become visible. Clustering the data builds the mound that allows us to begin that sifting process. Perhaps that is a way to shortcut the need to research on site in Tennessee. At least, since I won't be traveling there any time soon, I can always hope.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can't Get There From Here


It's September. That means the educational programs I'm involved with are now in full swing. Last Saturday, I taught my first in a series of genealogy classes at a new public library system. As usual, I ended up leaving the location later than I intended—I love to linger afterwards, answer questions and chat about research—but that put a time squeeze on travel to my next appointment.

To make matters worse, I decided to take a different route home—a more direct one that would bring me closer to an entrance to the freeway. Since this was not my home base, I didn't realize that the light I was stopped at was paired with unseen signals being received from the railroad tracks beyond. Sure enough, a train was coming. I was stuck.

Not to be deterred, I made a snap decision to take an alternate route. Though this was not my own city, I'm familiar enough with this place to know the back roads.

I thought.

After driving for a little way, it occurred to me that, with a simple left turn, I could backtrack and resume my original route, which paralleled the detour I was now taking. I could see that road with every intersection I crossed.

What I didn't bargain for was the fact that, years ago, a feeder track—likely supplying a route to some industrial spurs north of the downtown area—ran alongside that road. Though the tracks were long gone, access to the main road beyond from the neighborhood where I was now driving was still limited. I could see the road I wanted to get on, but the route I chose to reconnect with it simply ran into what was once a railroad right-of-way—but was now a no-man's-land of dirt and weeds.

So close, yet so far away.

Of course, this frustrating scenario plays itself out in other walks of life, as well. It's easy to see this in genealogical research, and especially when working with DNA matches. I might see a match with the exact same surname as a main line in my family tree, but try though I might, I can't seem to locate a route to connect our families. It's as if there was a genetic plot of barren ground separating my route from my target.

These invisible barriers can be aggravating. Granted, when it comes to genealogical research, some matches may be with novices who may have no idea how to construct a pedigree chart or explain the reasons behind their conclusions. But even with savvy researchers who know the ins and outs of their family surnames and locales, we still run into roadblocks.

Even more so, when we move beyond autosomal matches to use those more powerful tools measuring our distant genetic heritage: the Y-DNA or mitochondrial DNA tests. The men in my family who have agreed to allow me to serve as their account administrator have received test results which are also frustrating. For my husband's Y, which presumably should be producing some matches with the name Stevens, I have garnered a wide variety of surnames among his matches. Granted, there are some repeats among some results listing names like Price, Little, Withycombe—and associated spelling variations—but nothing even remotely connected to the surname he holds today.

The smattering of appellations concluding with "-son" may harken back to his Viking connections in Ireland, and remind me that this Y-DNA test is powerful enough to carry us back before the institution of surnames. But how do I get there from here? With the exception of royalty, there isn't likely to be any paper trail long enough to reach for that type of information.

I've heard some researchers talk about building shadow trees, starting with their match's data and checking the research conclusions. That, however, can become tedious for people having upwards of a thousand matches. And, as I've seen, that becomes a pipe dream in the face of a genetic test with results powerful enough to reach so far back in history, beyond the dawn of surnames.

With autosomal DNA tests yielding us fairly reliable results to match us with cousins who share ancestors as distant as fourth or fifth great grandparents, yet such a gap still outstanding between that limit and the possibilities inherent in Y- or mt-DNA tests, I wish there was a test which could provide answers in that no-man's-land in between.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pursuing Project Goals:
The Tally


Now that I've zeroed in on some specific research projects—preparing an application for membership in the Mayflower Society as well as applying some elbow grease to my sadly-forsaken paternal family lines—let's see how much progress I've made in the last two weeks. I figure my bi-weekly count will come in handy in providing a snapshot of regular progress.

As can be expected since it's my maternal line which will grant me membership as a Mayflower descendant, work on my mother's tree moved along at a decent, though modest, pace. In the past two weeks, I managed to add information on 157 family members to bring the tree's total to 11,336.

The flip side, of course, is that I neglected my mother-in-law's line—though even that didn't stand stock still; I managed to add twenty two to the count, for a total of 12,579 in that database.

However, it's those two paternal lines I'm curious about. The going is rougher there, with a father-in-law who had three immigrants among his four grandparents, and my own father, whose father was a complete mystery—or at least a well-kept secret—to everyone who knew him. Even so, I managed to squeeze in enough research to garner thirteen additional names for each of those paternal lines. As it stands now, I have 450 in my father's tree and 1,321 in my father-in-law's database. This may seem like a painfully slow advance, but any forward movement here is welcome in my eyes.

Progress on connecting with DNA matches slowed in these past two weeks, partly because of the devastation hitting the hometown of one genetic genealogy company, but mostly because my focus was on other projects. Understandably, despite August sale results normally pumping up numbers this far into the subsequent month, Family Tree DNA's pace was less than otherwise expected: twenty two new matches for me (now totaling 2,362) and only eight new matches for my husband (bringing his match count to 1,525).

AncestryDNA and 23andMe—neither company impacted by the ravages of the recent hurricane—contributed six and seven new matches, respectively, to my husband's tally, with 23andMe interestingly reversing their trend of losing matches for the first time since the gain on July 2. On the other hand, my standing at 23andMe didn't enjoy such a blessing; I lost by a count of one match at 23andMe, yet gained six at AncestryDNA. That leaves my husband with a total of 339 matches at AncestryDNA and 1,223 matches at 23andMe. I'm currently at 709 and 1,170, respectively.

All told, tallying this past fortnight's accomplishments seems to correspond to the goals I've set for my current research projects, and that's a reassuring thought.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

I R L (2)


Sometimes, the screeching warnings coming out of real life penetrate the genea-bubble surrounding even the most obtuse of us family history researchers. Just as it had, less than ten days ago, the severe weather warnings have once again shaken me out of my research reverie.

No sooner had Harvey blown out of Houston, than we began picking up the faintest warnings of another storm to come. This time, though, it wasn't Texas which was the target, but Florida.

I've already heard from a sister-in-law who decided to reroute her return trip home to Florida from her vacation; instead, she's headed for a daughter's home in inland Texas. A cousin, also living in the path of Irma but traveling up north at the moment, is also re-evaluating her travel plans. We've heard from others with family and friends in Florida, most of whom are trying their best to leave the state before Irma's arrival. So far, everyone we've heard from has accomplished that goal, but still, the tone is tense, as people are leaving everything behind.

If you've been following A Family Tapestry for any time, you likely realize Florida is one of those states where I have a longstanding ancestral heritage. Though I don't live there—I hadn't even set foot in the state for my first time until just last winter—my roots there grow deep. I have genealogical connections—as well as personal connections—with Tampa, central Florida and the panhandle. I've always wanted to go back and visit those family homes on a research trip.

Hurricanes in Florida are not a rare occurrence, as I'm sure you realize if you've kept an ear attuned to news over the years. In fact, during one year—I think it was Hurricane Andrew that year—one family member's home was completely destroyed, a catastrophic event, to say the least.

Multiply that experience over and over again, by the magnitude of the many years of hurricane history times the number of people living through the trauma, and perhaps that bird's-eye snapshot will get you thinking the very same thing I'm wondering: if Florida is a locale doomed to such repeated devastation, how on earth have people there managed to keep safe all the documentation of their history? Winds, rains, storms—and the ensuing mold and mildew—become bitter taskmasters for the archivists doomed to mop up the aftermath.

Yes, people will somehow get on with their lives—rebuild, placing the new over the rubble of the old—but what about those tokens of where we've been? I've often wondered why I can't find any photographs of my great-grandfather's family, or any other memorabilia of their existence in Florida. Perhaps it's because those are the details which succumb to the fury of those regularly-passing storms.

One wonders what becomes of a people whose yearly existence includes such threats of devastation. It becomes a very different way of life to have to anticipate fleeing in the path of destruction at the approach of the annual "hurricane season."

While I certainly sympathize with those who are facing the facts of Hurricane Irma right now—running the risk of losing their homes if they leave, or their life or safety if they stay—I had never thought about this sort of circumstance as a way of life. Turmoil such as this may enter anyone's life once or twice, perhaps, but having to endure it on a yearly basis seems to introduce a very different dynamic with that type of stress. A thought like that can lead a genealogical researcher to see in a very different light their ancestors who've regularly survived such conditions.

As for me, I am not made of such mettle. I'd take the risk of an occasional earthquake over the wake of such annual destruction, any day.

But for those whose life paths have led them to settle in this weather-worn region, my thoughts and prayers are with you, for personal safety and protection of your family over anything else.   

Friday, September 8, 2017

Googling for Genealogical Gold


Though they still have to be vetted for accuracy, one hundred year old genealogies can be a thrill for a researcher who just found a pertinent surname within its covers. That's how things are going for me now, as I compare the notes from two Broyles family researchers with the documentation accessible online today.

That sort of grunt work doesn't play out well in blog posts. So let's switch things up. Kind of like a three ring circle, I'm bouncing between work on the Broyles family of South Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the Davis family of North Carolina and that same spot in eastern Tennessee, and the Tilson family of Virginia (and then that same spot in eastern Tennessee) which promises to lead me back to Mayflower Society eligibility. Where the three collide, I'm hoping to find documentation to either confirm or deny my suspicions—well, for now, let's just call them my hypotheses.

Since I've already scoured applicable online resources for old genealogy publications, I need to search in the other direction, too. Every day brings additions to the various online resources we now use for genealogical research—but how to find them? Mainstays of digital genealogy like FamilySearch or Ancestry are such go-to websites that they become the first—and sometimes the only—resources of significance offered up for additional inspection.

I'm really not satisfied to rely only on those resources. I want more. So I head to Google, choose my keywords carefully, and start searching. There are literally hundreds of genealogical hidey-holes where yesterday's random-actors-for-genealogical-kindness parked their special tidbits. While inconvenient in and of themselves—some of these web resources may be old typewritten lists parked on the back lots of outdated sites like the old Rootsweb or somewhere in the GenWeb system—if the one which has your precious data is part of that byzantine maze, wouldn't you want to find it?

And so I go through my list of synonyms and surnames, typing them into the dialog box at Google and hoping something on page two or three of the results will contain just what I'm looking for.

I say page two or three, because I know how search engine optimization can skew results to serve up the most popular sites first. And those popular sites are precisely the ones I don't want to see. Why? Because I've already reviewed that material while I was working on those big sites like Ancestry or FamilySearch. Remember, I want something more.

This is a messy process, to be sure. Tedious. And void of any guarantees. But if something comes up, I'm ecstatic. Remember, I'm only doing this because I can't find the material I want anywhere else online. And I sure can't drop everything else this morning and catch the nearest flight to Tennessee.

One of my research questions right now is to figure out just how the Davis and Tilson families met up. Remember, I don't know the parents' names for Mayflower direct descendant Rachel Tilson's husband, James Davis. I'm not even super sure about the details I've received from others about this guy—that he was born in 1795 in "Washington County," North Carolina.

Remember, along the migratory pathways for all three families—Davis, Tilson, and Broyles—converging in Washington County, northeastern Tennessee shortly after this time, there was also a Washington County in Virginia and one in North Carolina. And that one in North Carolina wasn't even where the current Washington County is located today. Due to the geopolitical situation of the era, that James Davis who was born in Washington County, North Carolina, and who died in Washington County, Tennessee, could have been a man who was born and died in the very same place.

So, I went exploring on Google. My main question was to find any material on the history of that old Washington County in Virginia—the one where that Holston Valley region had a pre-Revolutionary church called the Saint Clair's Bottom Primitive Baptist Church. I wanted to find some contact information for a historian or someone knowledgeable about that location, prior to 1800.

In the nooks and crannies of the Internet, it is only Google which can ferret out these tucked away gems, and in my searching, I found one. It is now known as the Gordon Aronhime Papers, and they are housed in a collection called the Southwest Virginia Card File at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

Every now and then, you can run across the collections of people like Gordon Aronhime. They are dedicated researchers who set about to systematically document everything there is to know about a very tiny sliver of the universe of human knowledge. In Mr. Aronhime's case, that sliver was focused on the upper Holston-Clinch River area of southwest Virginia during the years from 1770 to 1795.

The entire body of knowledge preserved by Gordon Aronhime is kept on a set of over four thousand index cards, now scanned and available online at the Library of Virginia. The data include dates of birth and death, marriage information, lists of some children, abstracts of wills and some other biographical data. Because the information was handwritten on the cards, it employed a shorthand system of descriptors, so the collection includes a listing of abbreviations commonly used in the collection.

In addition, since a good number of the settlers in this area later migrated to nearby northeastern Tennessee, the collection includes a listing of several of these men, as well as listings on local forts, mills, ministers—and even some details on the 1780 Battle of King's Mountain.

That wasn't the only discovery I made while exploring the lesser-known sites discussing the topic of my current interest. Deep within the pages of the Virginia GenWeb site, I found a listing of marriages from Washington County, dated 1782 to 1820. Sure enough, looking at the alphabetized entries for the letter "T," I found several marriages for my Tilson family—although nothing of interest for my Davis ancestor.

No problem with that, though. The search is far from over. Just knowing that these hidden nuggets are out there to be found—with diligence and lots of patience—encourages me to keep trying my hand at googling those search terms.


Above: Sample card from the Gordon Aronhime Papers at the Library of Virginia shows entries for my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, including details on his marriage, land transactions and removal to Washington County, Tennessee.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Connecting Another Generation's Dots


When it comes to thinking about those empty branches on my family tree—like the Broyles family I'm now plugging into my database—I can't help but recall one particular visual reminder. It's a photograph that comes from another genealogy blog, aptly named—yes, you guessed it—Empty Branches on the Family Tree. Blogger Linda Stufflebean uses the perfect visual complement to her blog's title: a photograph of a fully-grown tree with a significant portion of its bare branches lacking any of the green leaves covering the rest of the tree.

Living in a state which, only last summer, was deep in the clutches of a relentless drought, I run across such reminders as Linda's tree often as I drive around town. Lately, thinking of the missing branches on my own family tree, I can't help but return to brooding over that lack, every time I drive by one of those drought-stricken trees in town—especially now, as I take up the task of focusing on my Broyles family branch of my maternal line.

As genealogical projects go, this is not an overwhelming assignment. After all, if my goal is to be able to chart all the descendants of my third great grandparents, all I need do is push back the record one single generation. I already have documented the line from my mother back to my second great grandfather, Thomas Taliaferro Broyles, since it was his mother whose line provided me access to membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But Thomas' father's line is a different story. I do have some information on Ozey R. Broyles children—Thomas' siblings—and I have been working through the process of documenting all their descendants.

Since I have access to genealogies of the Broyles family line, though, why not test the waters on these hundred-year-old resources to see how correct the data might be? Besides, if I can push back just one more generation, it will provide the insurance to help back my case if a DNA match on the Broyles line turns up a distant cousin who is just a little bit shy of the centiMorgan count necessary to firmly place the relationship in the camp of fourth cousin. Not to mention, this Broyles line, like many colonial families, had a tendency to intermarry, thus running me the risk of having a relationship show up as closer than it might have been in fact.

Ever the one to be prepared, I'm pushing back another generation. In one way, this is not too difficult a proposition. But in another way, it is: this was the era of families with many children, and in the case of the Broyles lines I'm working on, it seems they favored lots of daughters. This is also, incidentally, the era in which some women became invisible as they crossed the threshold from single to married status.

To get started, yesterday I mentioned finding one genealogy—actually an annotated volume commenting on the work of another published genealogy—but in reality, it was only the first volume of that project. Heading to the book section at FamilySearch.org, I located several listings of genealogies containing Broyles family members, where I spied a resource for volume two of John Kenneth Broyles' critique of Arthur Leslie Keith's work.

Let the grunt work begin! I've pushed back one more generation to add Ozey R. Broyles' father, Aaron Broyles, and his wife, Frances Reed (or other phonetic spelling variations). I'm working my way through each of the seven siblings of Ozey that I've been able to locate, adding their information to my database, verifying the Keith and Broyles assertions with whatever documentation I can find independently, and then tackling their descendants, generation by generation.

This will take a while to complete, of course, but as I work, I'm making some discoveries, which I'll discuss in a few days. In the meantime, I'm also finding myself crossing ancestral trails that have been visited while pursuing other branches of my maternal family.

Sometimes, I wonder just how many of my ancestors' marriages were really between people who knew each other because they had migrated together from homes far removed from the eastern Tennessee area where I had found them. That, as it turns out, only serves to emphasize the validity of the concept of F.A.N. Clubs—the friends, neighbors and associates who turned out to be the traveling partners of our migrating ancestors.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Rechecking Those Missing Branches


It was the frustration of an inscrutable DNA match that pushed me to do it. My DNA results had located a fellow genetic genealogy enthusiast who matched me at that just-close-enough-but-still-far-away level of second to fourth cousin. If it were just one match at that level, I might be tempted to dismiss it and look for more promising results. But I found that, using the "in common with" device at the testing company, over the weeks, more and more DNA matches were lining up with this same match. Whatever branch of my family contained these people's ancestors, it was clearly a branch where I needed to spruce up my records.

Granted, second to fourth cousin isn't exactly a compelling DNA connection. In my case, though, that is the only type of match I seem to garner which is close enough to pursue. After all, even at the outside stretch, it would mean figuring out the most recent common ancestors for a fourth cousin. In other words, all I'd have to locate would be a set of third great grandparents.

For the most part, I can do this. It's those few branches where I haven't been able to paper the trail back that far where I face challenges. Like this one with the match I can't figure out.

That there are a few branches where I haven't really covered enough research territory to clear that hurdle, I admit. For some, I'm already doing penance—like my paternal grandfather's lines, and my husband's paternal history, as well. The slow progress on that grunt work there is reassuring, even if I'm not zooming along on the documented trail. But while I'm chipping away at these lines—and the tedium of the work doesn't make for scintillating posts—there are other tasks to attend to.

I'm discovering there are other lines missing those third greats, as well. I can pat myself on the back in recognition of second greats showing up in my records, but unless I can tease that envelope all the way to third greats, I'll be missing any DNA matches that push the margin to fourth cousin.

I decided to take up the task on one of those lines this week. It's the line, in fact, that led to gaining me admittance in Daughters of the American Revolution: the ancestors of my second great grandfather, Thomas Taliaferro Broyles. I had done work on that Broyles line in the past, of course—but that was on a different computer in a different time period when people posted trees on free resources like Rootsweb.com. When it came time to make the switch to the more sophisticated Ancestry.com, for some reason, those records never migrated over during the big switch.

Then, too, this line involved work in which I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a distant cousin. We compared notes—although in this case, I have to say the other researcher's notes were more advanced than mine at the time—and figured we were something like ninth cousins. He also was kind enough to share with me several resources—in particular, the work of Arthur Leslie Keith, although cautioning me that that edition was rife with errors—as well as his own online tree.

Broyles is one of those surnames—like my other ancestral name, Taliaferro—which is so unusual that it bestows upon me a false confidence that, should I encounter someone with that surname, I could walk right up to that person and assert that we were surely related. Of course, if we actually were related, it would be to the magnitude of a very distant cousin. On the other hand, the line is so well documented back to the 1600s that it wouldn't be difficult to look up the respective family branches and count out the level of relationship.

Remembering all the enjoyable times I had corresponded with this Broyles researcher, I tried locating some of those resources online now. It certainly is time to get back to documenting my Broyles line. If nothing else, I need to confirm that set of third great grandparents. But when I looked for any such records, all I could find online was a transcription of that old Broyles publication by Dr. Keith, with notes (and presumably corrections) by yet another Broyles researcher, John Kenneth Broyles.

As with all the other century-old published genealogies of my family lines, I'd like to take that edition and run its assertions through current websites to see what documentation can be located to verify—or refute—the lineage listed in the book. If what the book says is correct, my family has, in more than one line, settlers in that northeastern tip of Tennessee where my Mayflower-connection Tilsons came to live. Apparently, my Broyles ancestors lived there early enough to qualify me as a descendant of additional First Families of Tennessee settlers.

That, in itself, is incentive enough for me to fill in that one empty branch in my family tree.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

One Way to Keep
That Forward Momentum


I recently read a blogger who mentioned that, unlike others who periodically choose a book to read, he usually kept a collection of five or six volumes on his active reading list. He would bounce between books according to mood. Sometimes, it was fiction that took his fancy. Other times, when he wasn't quite up to industrial-strength intellectual pursuits, perhaps he'd turn to an autobiography.

Eventually, he'd finish the entire collection and move on; he didn't find the segmentation of his reading list to be distracting in the least. That way, he matched his reading interest to his current energy level and point of fascination. It kept him reading through his book bucket list, instead of getting stuck at a boring impasse in the middle of his sole selection.

Perhaps it may seem like my blogging style is matching that person's reading style. While I'm grinding away at making genealogical sausage, I'm flitting from one discovery to another. Then the roadblock looms, and I switch research tracks. Again.

I admit it must seem difficult to follow such jagged story lines. But I also realize how tedious it can be to read the blow-by-blow of the research process. Then, too, stuff is popping up while other stories languish: a text from Ireland brings me a photo of that little lost photo album making its way home after eighty years; a cousin re-surfaces after years to connect over DNA testing. While I'm stymied in the research doldrums, refreshing breezes like these are a welcome change.

And so the pattern continued this past weekend as I received a response to a chance message I had sent by Facebook. In the hunch that this social media site is now where genealogical connections are happening, I had sent a message to a fellow Davis researcher whom I hadn't contacted for years. Maybe decades. Having spotted her name in a book on the very area where descendants of my potential Mayflower connection may have settled in Tennessee, I thought I'd chance connecting by Facebook.

Just a few days ago, my hunch was confirmed: she answered my message. Even better, she informed me that she had completed her application for membership in the Mayflower Society, herself—the very goal I was wanting to discuss with her. The good news was: she was accepted into the Society. What's more, she's willing to help me get all my documentation in order, as well.

This is the kind of stuff that generates a genealogical happy dance. We share a common ancestor just four generations removed from me. Bringing the documentation forward from my second great grandfather Thomas D. Davis, who died in 1892, should be rather straightforward. It's all the twists and turns to carry me from his mother, Mayflower descendant Rachel Tilson Davis in Tennessee, back to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Plymouth Colony, that I'm concerned about.

There's always been something about working with a friend on a project of interest. Not that I couldn't do the work alone, but the encouragement of someone who has already been down this road is helpful. Not to mention, it's always fun to meet a new cousin—especially someone who understands just what it is about this genealogical research that makes our eyes light up. Meeting up with a cousin like that is a double bonus.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Coming to Terms With
Ancestral Occupations


It's Labor Day here in the United States. Time to think of occupations—of our ancestors, of course. Time to muse over our great-greats who had no notion of what it's like to code for computers or delve into DNA. When we think of our ancestors, we think of people who lived in a simpler time, when those who weren't farmers were butchers, bakers or capillaire makers.

Wait. What?

I can't count how many census records I've searched through and noticed the occupation listed as farmer. It seems even my doctor and lawyer ancestors preferred to have themselves counted as farmers. But for those whose ancestors came up with more interesting ways to make a living, you might find yourself needing a guide to decipher those occupational callings.

For instance, as recent as an 1821 will in London, England, a gentleman was listed as being a capillaire maker. If this were my relative, I'd be scrambling to Google the term, of course. But in addition to that, I've found there are a few (somewhat) reliable sources for antiquated occupational terms that you might find of interest.

Thanks to Google, I discovered that capillaire was originally "a water-clear syrup originally flavored with dried maidenhair fern"—though later with "orange-flower water"—used by confectioners. I used to love having maidenhair ferns in my office—at least until I discovered by their dry appearance that they didn't appreciate my purple thumb. If only I had known: I could have gone into the capillaire-making business.

Despite what I was able to confirm via Google, though, my original discovery of the term capillaire came from a set of pages listing obscure and outdated occupational terms, found on the website of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. Even that was found courtesy of Google. It pays to come to terms with a great search engine.

Now that you know my secret source, if someone plies you with the question, "Which is a more important position: postilion or prothonotary?" you can head for such handy lists as that or, for those with a British Isles background, the occupational listing at the Hall Genealogy Website. Even Cyndi's List has a list of links for those researching odd or outdated occupational terms.

However, no matter what online resource you use, remember the "buyer beware" warning, even though this information comes to us, free of charge. With just a cursory glance at some of the pages in these collections, I was able to detect mistakes. Prothonotary, for instance, was listed as "prothonary" in the RAOGK website, and postilion evidently has more than one spelling—as well as definition variant. I've found it's always a good policy to take the precaution of googling any unfamiliar term found in an otherwise unvetted resource.

So, whether your ancestor was a beetler, a barker, or candlestick maker, don't just settle for transcribing an unfamiliar term into your genealogical database. Take some time to look it up. There may be riches to be discovered as the definition opens up an unfamiliar world to you—the world of your ancestors' lifetime and a resource which might well have become the ancient basis for your family's surname, as well. 


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Off the Shelf: The Invisible Gorilla


"Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself—and that's a good thing."

From time to time, it's not a book from the sagging shelves of my own book-acquiring foibles that I've selected for the month's reading penance, but a book from someone else's collection.

Yes, it is true: I've married someone with the same book-collecting weakness as I have. Only he has an excuse: he bought this book for his business.

While that may be entirely true (he has used material from this book in presentations in at least three different locations this year), the book I'm talking about today has sat on a shelf at his desk, right where it can taunt me as I pass by each day. By this weekend, I had had enough, and succumbed to cracking open the cover and reading.

Before I tell you anything about this book, or why I think it applies to what we do in the world of genealogical research, I have to start out with a spoiler alert. The reason why my husband has yet to actually read this book is because he already read the academic study that preceded it. Not only that, but he's seen the video.

Yes, there is a video. In this case, it came before the book. You might have already seen the video, too, as it has certainly made the rounds on online venues.

But in case you have yet to see the short video with the instructions given up front to count the passes between the team members wearing the white shirts, perhaps you best try the thing out for a test drive yourself here, before reading further.

The video came from an experiment originally conducted by the authors of the book—Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—in conjunction with some of their psychology students at Harvard. The results were unexpected, to say the least, and opened up a world of study on what has become labeled as illusions: "the myriad ways that our intuitions can deceive us."

The assumption "that people will notice when something unusual happens right in front of them" has, according to The Invisible Gorilla, been proven wrong time and again. The authors kindly label that shortfall as "selective attention." Needless to say, the authors are not impressed with the brain's ability to "multi-task" and they are death on driving while talking on a cell phone—hand-held or hands-free.

The book gets right down to where we live, even though the first chapter opens with a chase pursuing murder suspects. From such high tension episodes to the more mundane mishaps of life, the authors find ways to drive home their message: "to pierce the veil of illusions that cloud our thoughts and to think clearly for perhaps the first time."

As one reviewer of the book noted, "Everyday illusions trick us into thinking that we see—and know—more than we really do, and that we can predict the future when we can't." The book turns out to be "a lively tour of the brain's blind spots," useful, of course, for law enforcement professionals—but also for any of us hoping to achieve goals with progress reports based on a feedback loop. Anyone needing to mentally process input can profit from the cautions in this book.

I see its application to our world of genealogy in two ways: one, for research, and the other for the collective work we rely on in societies and other associations.

Yes, agreed that we are not peering into the future with our research into the history of our ancestors. But we can still be blindsided by our ideas about the historical milieu these ancestors were living in versus our own modern reality. Often, we try to overlay our current assumptions upon the lifespans of our mystery ancestors—and yet, come up surprised when our "brick walls" don't yield to our diligent research. Perhaps the unyielding wall is more attributed to selective attention on our part than missing documents on our ancestors' part. If we could develop the skill of being open to seeing the unexpected (if it is truly there but as invisible as a gorilla to our weary researching eyes), perhaps that expanded understanding could lead us to some breakthroughs.

When we as researchers come together as societies for learning and mutual research assistance, it is so tempting to align with the status quo—to keep on keeping on with what has worked in the past. Yet even here, on a collective level, planning for future programs, organizational development and growth trajectory, thinking outside the box will require shaking loose from those illusions decried by Chabris and Simons. If we don't see what we don't expect, could it be that we also will get what we do expect? When it comes to organizational planning, here we definitely need unclouded thinking. Our group's success depends on that type of leadership.

Whether there is or isn't an invisible gorilla standing in your path—in your own research or as you work with your local genealogical society—having a book that makes you less sure of your assumptions is a good thing, at least if it guides you toward more accurate perceptions and lets you arrive at more reasonable conclusions.



Note: While there are no affiliate links present in this post, our family's business has purchased rights to use the authors' video in our own company's training programs. Regardless of that business relationship, views expressed in this review are solely those of this writer.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Now Indexing:
on the New Web-Based Interface!


It's time to head back to my monthly commitment to do some volunteer indexing at FamilySearch.org. I call this paying it forward, but in reality, it's paying back with gratitude for all those nameless volunteers online who've helped me get started with my own family history research, years ago. I always hope that my monthly two cents worth will make a difference for someone else.

I had heard through the blogosphere that something new was up at the FamilySearch indexing site, so I went hunting before I started today's indexing project. Sure enough, there is now a web-based interface for indexing, which is being gradually rolled out through 2017. Instead of having to download a program, resident on your desktop, in order to participate in indexing, you can now go straight to the indexing website, sign in, and voilĂ ! There you are.

The hype is that the web-based program is much easier to learn, and it does seem streamlined and intuitive. Easy, that is, until you start looking at details.

I chose to continue working on U.S. Naturalizations in the courts in Chicago, Illinois, where several of my in-laws took up residence after their long migration from Ireland via Canada. While in this set of batches where I lucked out in that I was served up mostly typewritten documents, I was stymied by a few things.

First of all, right up front, the site offers project instructions. Unlike the desktop-resident program, these instructions are very detailed. The inset contained enough information for me to scroll down several times before reaching the conclusion. In other words, too much information for me to keep in my little pea brain for the duration of an indexing session. Plus, the placement obscured some of the details of the document which I needed to index, thus causing me to close it—and then wonder how to get the thing open again when the next question would inevitably pop up.

Little colored circles with embedded question marks appear at the end of each field to be indexed. If hovered over with your mouse, these provided clues about the specific line's requirements. That is an excellent idea in theory, but in practice, went in the opposite direction from my previous complaint in that they seemed to provide less information than was helpful. I realize you can't please all the people all the time, but I was hoping for a little bit more here.

At one point, I made a mistake in adding a continuation page, because it allowed the indexer the option of adding more information from the card being transcribed. Then, seeing what the continuation page looked like, I realized I had made a poor choice. The problem was: I couldn't find any way to undo the error! I was stuck in the cyber version of voice mail jail, trying every which way to make that page just go away, but no luck. I'm sure an arbitrator will be wondering about that one.

Despite all that, the new web-based program is easy to work with, and the visual composition is much easier on the eyes. There is even the element of fun added: when a finished project is submitted, virtual confetti floats from the top of the screen in celebration!

I'm sure the propensity to grumble about the new and prefer the familiar will eventually ease into a preference for the new way of indexing. The process progresses smoothly and seems—for the most part—to be intuitive. I'll eventually get over the information overload at the start of every session—although something in me resists their suggestion to print up the instructions for further reference.

One thing I do like about the new interface: it allows for people to join groups, or even set up groups. While there are only a few listed at this point, and all seem to be church-based, I envision this being a way for local genealogical societies to encourage their members to pitch in to complete targeted projects of interest to the particular society. Our society worked to get one collection online in the past, using the old indexing system, but I can see how this would work even better to encourage group efforts.

All in all, I believe the new design facilitates ease and speed of process. Hopefully, that will mean more projects get completed sooner, bringing additional records online at an even greater speed. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Troublesome Signs


These are troubled times. Parts of our country may be reeling from the blows of devastating storms, but that is not all that is troubling our part of the world. When so much strife and dissension seem to be tearing at the very fabric of our culture, it seems the time is ripe for an enemy to come in like a flood, as well.

I was surprised yesterday morning, as I took a look at this blog's stats, to see a radical shift in the numbers of readers over the previous day. Not only was the count higher, but the origin of the hits had a curious detail: for every one person landing at my site yesterday from my home country (the United States), it was matched by two and a half hits from Russia.

Not that I suddenly have developed a fan base in the former U.S.S.R.—in fact, I rarely write about any family heritage from that part of the world. What I suspect is more likely is that these are hacker attempts or bots repeatedly accessing the same address. Who knows what the reason might be. It certainly isn't a keen interest in non-Russian genealogy.

Later that same day, I was reading a post on another website, totally unrelated to genealogy. (I do, contrary to all appearances, have a life with interests outside the realm of genealogy.) What was interesting to see was that every time I clicked through to another page on that nonprofit, non-commercial site, it would open up another web page, totally unrelated to the first site, either urging me to buy something or "click here" because I had just won something. Need it be said that site has been hacked?

That, of course, got me to thinking: what if this site were likewise hijacked? Could that happen and the owner of the site not know it? Apparently yes, for that other website—the domain of a nonprofit foundation—is certainly a victim of such an act.

Hopefully, if such a thing were to occur to this site, I'd hope you, as a reader, would be kind enough to tip me off in a comment—and, of course, I'll need to do likewise for the site where I first spotted such a trespass.

Of course, there are many other difficulties facing online usage right now. The storm in Houston impacting the FamilyTreeDNA office and lab—and, by extension, the lab utilized by MyHeritage—has caused the company to turn off their servers, as power went out in the area. They had backup generators, but those were specifically dedicated to keep the lab and DNA samples safe, not to any computer-based customer services like order confirmations. Just doing my routine checks for matches on their website showed the result: the website responds much more slowly than usual, and the telltale date of "most recent" matches is frozen in time at August 26.

Such devastation in Houston seems inconceivable—except for all the photos and film footage testifying to the alarming turn of events. And yet, even there can be seen troublesome signs of those who wish to prey on others' misfortunes. Along with a list of places where help can be sent, an ABC News item provided tips for avoiding scammers as people rush to help with their heartfelt donations.

It is so easy, in our genealogical world, to assume others would be just like we are—willing to help, to share, to encourage, rather than to take advantage of—but sadly, that is not always the case. The best path to take is the one that is uplifting, taking action that will make a positive difference. Yet at the same time, the necessity is to keep our eyes open and understand not everyone feels the same way—not even in times like these.
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