Saturday, February 28, 2015

Some Saturday Stats

Through the years, a number of expletive-laden comments have been made about statistics. After all, not many people have fond memories of their college statistics classes. I can hardly blame them.

Today, though, I am not ashamed to stand and confess, “Statistics is my friend.” Why? In times when a researcher gets so mired in the details as to lose sight of the goal, impartial numbers can serve as encouragement. After all, a number doesn’t bend to make me happy, or tell me lies (contrary to a certain popular quote). A number is a number is a number. And right now, I need some numbers to help me see that I am, indeed, making progress.

It’s the task I’m bogging down in that’s gotten to me: trying to sort through the generations of all the descendants of my Taliaferro line. I’ve gone back to the beginning of the 1700s to start with Richard Taliaferro. From there, I’m wending my way through the descendant lines of each of Richard and Rose Berryman Taliaferro’s thirteen—at least—children.

Last time I talked about this, I had been working on the lines of their son, Dr. John Taliaferro. That was nine days ago.

I’m still working on that same line. Did I make any progress at all?

It doesn’t feel like it.

That, you see, is why I need to employ some numbers. Think of this as my Cheering-Up Party. Statistics are for celebrating.

Turns out, all that hard work did get me somewhere. Last time I looked, I had less than fourteen hundred people in my family tree database. I am now up to almost nineteen hundred. Over five hundred entries in nine days isn’t bad. No wonder it felt so tedious!

Meanwhile, over at Family Tree DNA, where my autosomal DNA “Family Finder” test results await my return, the match tally is racing me. Last time I looked, I had seven hundred fifty matches. Now, there are seven hundred sixty seven.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to add any more of those matches to my confirmed relationships count. There is so much yet to learn about those ancestors seven generations back—and beyond.

When you find yourself doing a lot of work, yet having precious little to show for the effort, it is statistics that can shine the light on your progress. Yes, I’ve been swamped under the data dump from endless pages of old genealogies. But sometimes, it helps to stop what you are doing and come up for air. Keeping a count of the mile markers passed, the surnames aggregated, the records collected helps.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Three Brothers and a War

Absorbing the sweeping panorama of the Taliaferro family history in rapid-fire succession of generations as I have been, I’ve fast-forwarded through quite a bit of family drama. Because I’m taking as methodical an approach as possible using an established genealogy, I’ve started with the siblings of my fifth great grandfather, Zachariah Taliaferro, reading forward through time in all the descendant branches.

Right now, I’m following the lines of Zachariah’s brother, Dr. John Taliaferro, born just three years after my ancestor’s 1730 arrival in colonial Virginia. Working through the descendants of John’s daughter Rose—no doubt named after his own mother, Rose Berryman—I have now been approaching the generation spanning the Civil War.

Reading through genealogies tends to subordinate major historical events to that dull—though constant—litany of name, date of birth, date of marriage to specified spouse, listed issue, and, eventually, date of death. The droning of that thrum, thrum, thrum through the ages almost obliterates the realization that those born in the 1840s were most certainly exposed to great upheaval in their young adult lives, twenty years later.

As I moved through the lines of Dr. John’s daughter Rose, the consecutive details on one page of the  genealogy shook me out of that hypnotic lethargy. Rose, who had married a man by name of Joseph Porter, had several children, though the task of documenting them had been challenging, as some from that generation of the family moved from Wilkinson County in Georgia to land in the southern region of Alabama.

Their (possibly) youngest child, Richard Porter, was one of the family who had left their home in Georgia. He and his wife, the former Mary Collins Paul, had at least eleven children.

As I reviewed the details from the genealogical record, I ran across three brothers, born consecutively around the early 1840s. James Henry Porter was born in 1839, followed by Julius Nicholas Porter in 1841 and John Ambrose Benjamin Porter in 1843.

In the book I was consulting—Willie Catherine Ivey’s Ancestry and Posterity of Dr. JohnTaliaferro and Mary (Hardin) Taliaferro—each young man’s entry was followed by an extra comment: killed in Civil War.

Three sons in one family were lost in one war. I can hardly think of how a loss like that could have been borne. The news reached the family when the first one fell—Julius in January, 1862—and was followed later that same year with confirmation of Benjamin’s loss in August. Less than a year after that—in May, 1863—a third report carried news of the loss of the oldest of the three brothers, James.

I realize casualties like these were experienced by many other families as well—a combination of the prevalence of large families with lack of policy limiting any one family’s risk of losing several sons in military service. When you realize that over six hundred thousand soldiers lost their lives in this war—including an estimated thirty percent of all Southern white males between the ages of eighteen and forty—you gain an academic sense of the enormity of the carnage in those Southern states of my forebears.

What is not as easy to grasp, though, is the impact such tragedy must have had on the individual families living through those times. Reviewing the vital statistics as we in genealogy are wont to do—the litany of name, birth, marriage, death—seems to pass us through such details unscathed. It dulls our senses to the pain of life experiences.

Sometimes, though, despite the repetition, a glitch in the rhythm of life knocks us out of step. Three young sons in a row with names pinned next to premature dates of death can do that. Though this era was also a time filled with childhood deaths and deaths of young mothers, you know this kind of loss must have been received with a great deal of pain by their family, no matter how large it may have been.   

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Same Place, Same Day, Two Marys

Sometimes, genealogical research conundrums drive me to distraction. Prepare yourself for another rabbit trail from said distraction.

As I plow through the ages and generations of Taliaferros and their related lines, it begins to dawn on me just how many of those kin could claim the name Mary Taliaferro.

It all started when I located the actual paperwork—digitized online, of course—for the marriage of my third great grandparents.

I was first alerted to this documentation, thanks to the much-maligned shaky-leaf hints at One hint linked me to a typewritten statement transcribed from some Oglethorpe County, Georgia, official’s records in the early 1800s.

Underneath entry number 1537 dated May 30th, the record added the following:
FACT OF CEREMONY. (Recorded Page 61, Original Book “A”.)
I hereby certify that on the 9th day of June 1818 I joined in holy wedlock Thos. F. Rainey and Mary E. Taliferro.                       Nicholas Powers, M. G.

“M. G.,” of course, referring to the designation “Minister of the Gospel,” informed me—presumably—of the name of the couple’s pastor, from which I might be able to infer the church they attended. I began to think of how I could determine which church might have kept corresponding records of the family’s early years, and how I could possibly locate more information on this nagging roadblock to my research progress. You see, this is the couple for whom I have no other confirmation of the wife’s name. According to other records, Thomas was to be happily married to someone named Nancy, not Mary.

I also began to grouse about not being able to access the original record books, themselves, where I could ascertain for myself whether the transcription was handled properly. After all, people can make mistakes—and, given the abysmal state of some officials’ handwriting, such mistakes were often come by quite honestly.

What was “Original Book ‘A’” and how could I get a look at it?

No sooner said than digitally served up, for the shaky leaves at Ancestry turn out to be prescient, as well. There, in all its abysmal glory, was the near-illegible entry confirming that Nicholas Powers “joined in holy wedlock” Thomas F. Rainey and Mary E. “Talafero.”

Looking back at the original transcript, I’d say that unnamed transcriber got this one right—well, close enough, considering the misspelling of that deceptive Taliaferro surname.

Somehow, in double checking the entry, my eye, caught once again at the name of the minister, happened to slip below to the very next line on the transcription, where, on the exact same day, an entry was made for the marriage of one Nicholas Powers.

Same man? Could the Rev. Nicholas Powers have been in to the Oglethorpe County offices to file the proper paperwork on two of his parishioners, and then slip in the requisite forms for his own marriage at the same time?

But there was more. On this same date—May 30, 1818—this same Nicholas Powers (at least, we presume it was the same man) was not only declaring that he was marrying Mary Taliaferro to Thomas Rainey, he was declaring that he was marrying Mary Taliaferro…to himself.


How could this be? There must have been some confusion in the transcription.

I looked back to the original, handwritten record, to see if I could find the second entry in its original form. Now that I was taking a close look at the original record, I discovered how disjointed it was. Nothing was in date order. This was the record from the Oglethorpe “Ordinary Office,” and apparently, when someone showed up to hand-enter a record, it got the next empty line on the page—whether in date order or not.

It turned out that Thomas Rainey’s wedding was recorded on May 30, but apparently transpired on June 9. Though I checked the page preceding and following the duly noted page 61, I could not find any marriage of a second Mary Taliaferro. Did two Mary Taliaferros get married like the May 30 entries declared? Or was one merely a clerical error? And if not, who was the second Mary? Or was one of the grooms’ names a mistake?

I was beginning to see my recently-acquired confidence over finding Mary Taliaferro’s husband fading into the ether.

Sitting down to think through this puzzle about the consecutively numbered entries, I realized that entry number 1537—Thomas Rainey’s entry—had the follow-up “Fact of Ceremony” entered below it, while entry number 1538—that for the minister, himself—did not. Did the second couple file their intention, yet get cold feet before that fateful day in which they were to meet at the altar?

History, thankfully, was on my side in supplying ample additional evidence that Nicholas Powers did get married to a Mary Taliaferro. But I had yet to figure that out.

I did, eventually, find another digitized, handwritten record book of marriage records—yes, again thanks to’s shaky leaf hints—showing the two consecutive entries. Both dated May 30, 1818, and following one after another on the same page, were the entries I sought.

In the end, it all came down to one specific detail that allowed me to tell the Marys apart: their middle initial. Thomas Rainey, you see, married Mary E. Taliaferro, while his pastor was wed to Mary M. Taliaferro.

While I still cannot find what I need to confirm my suspicions on this case, I believe the Mary who married Thomas Rainey was herself the daughter of the Mary who married the minister. The elder Mary, you see, was the widow of Warren Taliaferro, who apparently died before 1818. This widow was the former Mary Meriwether Gilmer, daughter of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer and Elizabeth Lewis Gilmer. Her 1818 marriage to Nicholas Powers would have been her second.

The only rub is that, if this elder Mary was indeed mother of the Mary who married Thomas Rainey in 1818, both she and her daughter, at their respective first marriages, would have had to have been quite young. You see, the elder Mary—if her headstone can be believed—was born in 1786. The younger Mary was born in 1804.

I’ll let you do the math and decide whether there’s enough margin for this possibility.

All images above courtesy, with specific document locations indicated by in-line hyperlinks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Stopping to Smell
Those Genealogical Roses

Every now and then, I run across a solitary detail that makes me perk up and realize the discovery calls for a break from the relentless grind of research. This week, I had such a moment.

Sometimes, in completing genealogical projects, it seems I am just flying through the steps, gleaning data from documents and affixing them to the appropriate locations on my extended family tree. In the case of this current project—that of laying down the foundation of the entire Taliaferro line from settlement in the American colony of Virginia to current day descendants—the rush seems doubly weighing.

The current Taliaferro line I’ve been concentrating on has been that of Dr. John Taliaferro, son of Richard Taliaferro and his wife, Rose Berryman. If you recall your Taliaferro genealogy well—and I can’t blame you if you don’t, even after reading along here at A Family Tapestry faithfully for the last few months—you will realize that Dr. John was younger brother of the Zachariah Taliaferro who was my sixth great grandfather.

My purpose in gathering what seems like extraneous family detail is to provide a database from which to extract links to the seven hundred fifty matches to my autosomal DNA test—many of whom likely relate to me thanks to such colonial connections as the extended Taliaferro family.

Right now, I’ve been laying down a tentative family trail by use of published genealogies from the prior century. I realize these may be rife with fallacies, but I am also certain that, with the aid of computerized search assistance, I can verify those details which were correct in the original publications and modify those which need attention.

The current book I’ve been using has been Willie Catherine Ivey’s The Ancestry and Posterity of Dr. John Taliaferro and Mary (Hardin) Taliaferro, originally published in 1926. There are several copies of this compilation in libraries across the nation. Thankfully, the Sutro Library in San Francisco was within driving range for me to locate it in my earliest days of research, long before the dawn of convenient online search capabilities—but that edition is now available online through subscription services such as and Heritage Quest.

So there I was, following the line of Dr. John Taliaferro through the decades. I went from his son Richard Taliaferro to his daughter Mary Hardin Taliaferro and her husband Elijah Lingo, to their daughter Mary Hardin Lingo who married Joseph Chappell, to their daughter Varilla Behethland Chappell, wife of Josiah Webster Jossey.

At that point, I started copying out the information on the Jossey daughters, Lorene and Leona. Lorene happened to marry a man whose surname was McNabb, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when that surname conjured up images of law enforcement caricatures created by opportunists in the cartoon world.

I found my mind jerked back to the real world when I moved on to the entry on Lorene’s younger sister, Leona. Born in 1870, by the time she turned the appropriate eighteen years of age, she was given in marriage to a man listed in the Ivey book as Frank L. Stanton. The author’s narrative went on to explain,
Mr. Stanton is Poet Laureate of Georgia and is also connected with The Atlanta Constitution.

Poet laureate? Connected to The Atlanta Constitution? This might be cause to stop and investigate.

I turned to the ever-handy Wikipedia to check out my hunches. Wikipedia obliged, with an article explaining that Frank Lebby Stanton was indeed a columnists for The Constitution—as well as being a well-known lyricist and, two years before his death, appointed the first poet laureate of the State of Georgia by then-governor, Clifford Walker.

Stanton’s roots provide some grounding for his career trajectory. As early as the 1860 census, the three year old Franklin L. Stanton was in the South Carolina household of editor Valentine Stanton. After the Civil War, he was apprenticed to a printer—an occupation he assumed in his early twenties, as witnessed by this 1879 city directory for Charleston, South Carolina.

Through a series of career moves—coupled with sage advice from luminaries in the field of journalism—Stanton ended up in his position as editor and columnist at The Constitution by 1889.

That is all very nicely academic for those of you who aren’t really concerned about the monotonous details of the in-laws of other people’s families. However, by following this Stanton rabbit trail, I discovered a bit more about just what prompted the governor of Georgia to pin Frank L. Stanton with the title of Poet Laureate.

I also discovered how I connect with the creator of the poem inspiring the dubbing of the organization, Graveyard Rabbits.

Perhaps, as a genealogical researcher yourself, you are familiar with the concept of The Association of Graveyard Rabbits. It doesn’t take but a moment of perusing their website to spot a couplet from the poem that inspired their name:
Among the graves…in the gloom and gleam,
Content to dwell where the dead men dream…

The author of that verse, of course, was none other than Georgia’s first Poet Laureate, Frank Lebby Stanton.

In a beautiful setting on a different website—A Graveyard Rabbit in Southeast Missouri—blogger Anne Berbling shares the entire poem on the right sidebar, just under the Graveyard Rabbit logo.

The original poem, “The Graveyard Rabbit,” first appeared in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s American Anthology 1787-1900, along with four other Stanton poems. In addition, many of Stanton’s poems were set to music, including the lullaby, “Mighty Lak’ a Rose,” one of several “dialect songs” of the era—though this one has endured through generations.

The rose became a trademark detail of Stanton’s work, reappearing in such poems as “Keep A-Goin’!”
If you strike a thorn or rose,
Keep a-goin’!
If it hails or if it snows,
Keep a-goin!
’Tain’t no use to sit and whine
When the fish ain’t on your line;
Bait your hook an’ keep a-tryin’—
Keep a’goin’!

Do you suppose, at the point of his death in 1927, that his contemporaries who took their place in my immediate family line realized their connection to so beloved a writer? Hardly. My maternal grandmother, descending from the same Richard and Rose Taliaferro line, would have been fifth cousin to Leona Jossey Stanton, Frank’s wife.

How many of you know your fifth cousins?

Yet, more of us are familiar with the work of Frank Lebby Stanton than we realize. From lengthy to lyrical, Stanton’s works adorned the pages of over three hundred publication in three languages, commemorated occasions of state, and were carried on catchy tunes of his time. He was acknowledged by many as the prototype for American newspaper columnists. Even at the close of his life, Stanton's 1927 memorial carries the quatrain so widely quoted during his lifetime:
This old world we’re livin’ in
Is mighty hard to beat.
You get a thorn with every rose,
But ain’t the roses sweet?

Strictly speaking, it would be unlikely for a genealogist to make a detour to consider the in-laws of a fifth cousin, twice removed. But sometimes, even we need to lift our noses from our research grindstones and stop to smell the roses.

Photograph, top right: Frank Lebby Stanton, circa 1920; below, 1901 cover of sheet music with lyrics written by Frank Stanton, "Mighty Lak' a Rose." Both images courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Genealogy of Chocolate

While my daughter was in the midst of a semester abroad, studying in Ireland, she saved one treat for herself at the end of her school commitment: a trip to Paris. But, of course! Where else would a longtime student of the French language wish to go?

As a consolation prize, upon her return home—barely in time for Christmas—she brought special gifts. One of them was an exquisite bar of chocolate, wrapped simply in a transparent plastic wrapper with an orange cardboard label affixed to the exterior.

The label itself—barring the fact that it is in French and not our native English—was plainspoken as well: Chocolatier à Paris à la Mère de Famille. A line on the side of the container added the note: Depuis 1761.

I assure you: words cannot begin to describe the delectable treat resting inside. It is like no other chocolate I’ve had the privilege of sampling. If you are ever in Paris, think of me and buy me another bar of this delicacy. I have been nursing this solitary treat through the weeks following its presentation at Christmas and, sadly, there are only a few squares of the precious stuff remaining.

Despite its marvelous smoothness, though, that is not why I chose to tell you about it today. I have another reason. Actually, it is a rather sorry reason, owing to the foul temper in which I remain, subsequent to spending hours searching for the specific link connecting my second great grandmother to the rest of the Taliaferro clan in Virginia. I am stuck in 1851—not a very impressive date for those delving into colonial genealogies. I should be wallowing in the names of my many ancestors preceding that brick wall date. Somewhere like 1761 should be no problem whatsoever for a surname as well documented as Taliaferro.

But here I sit, stymied with the mismatched records which will not let me budge beyond that 1851 Waterloo. And yet a chocolate bar—a chocolate bar, of all things—can do a better job of tracing its history beyond that taunting 1851 roadblock.

I should be able to do better than a chocolate bar.

French chocolate bar label from Paris

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making the Connection

Working as I have lately, trying to connect my matrilineal line with that of a mystery cousin who sports the exact same mitochondrial DNA match, I’ve begun to have a vague dread of participating in the genealogical equivalent of building the transcontinental railroad. You know: one line starts in the east and works its way west, the other starts in the west and heads eastward, with one great celebration supposedly happening when the twain meet up in the middle.

Somewhere, tickling the back of my mind, is a similar warning from the real Transcontinental Railroad. I wanted to pull up the story for you, because I found it so incredible when I first learned of it, and thought it contained lessons for those of us stuck in such research problems as mine. Of course, finding any mention of that story online ate up the greater part of my allotted time yesterday in preparation for writing this. But slight as it is, at least I’ve found one mention of the vignette, and that’s good enough for me.

You see, amidst all the drama of the massive American project—to build the nation’s first overland route and secure a connection from the already-existing rail network in the eastern half of the continent to the San Francisco Bay at the western terminus—there were some technical difficulties.

Totally understandable, of course. Think of it: the project called for nearly two thousand miles of railroad line, laid down through the relative wilderness of the western portion of the country. Rather than having one company start at one end and work their way to the other side, the plan enlisted the work of three railroad companies: Western Pacific, Central Pacific and Union Pacific. Their task: to deliver a product that would meet up in the middle. With a strategy like that, there was bound to be problems.

Of course, learning about the feat from our side of history, we hear about all the hoopla of the successful meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah, where the legendary “Last Spike” of gold—no, silver…no, gold and silver—was supposedly driven into place, celebrating the connection of the two lines and the completion of the mammoth project.

What we don’t hear—at least, not often—was that those two lines didn’t exactly meet in the middle. We hear a lot about the construction challenges. About clashes between Chinese and Irish labor teams. And especially, about the grand celebration at the end. But not about how the railroad companies failed to make their own connection.

It took a lot of searching to find any report of this little detail online, but I found one mention of it—not in any of the usually expected places, mind you, but it will do for the point I have to make.

I had to borrow the narrative from a contributor to an economics blog. The writer, Mark Pribonic, was mentioning how he and his daughter, while on a ski vacation in Utah, decided to take a detour to visit the Promontory Summit museum established to commemorate this great accomplishment, the Transcontinental Railroad. Apparently, the historic site includes a self-guided walking tour alongside the original railroad grade built for the project.

It was at the second stop on this walking trail that the author happens upon the very thing I wanted to point out. I’ll let him share the observation in his own words.
At that moment we were standing on the grade built by the Central Pacific and there less than fifty yards below was the grade built by the Union Pacific. The grades did not meet but ran parallel to each other and had continued that way for 250 miles—almost a year’s work.

The author adds that the guidebook mentioned that “the work camps for the two groups were literally separated by a hillside.”

So, what does that have to do with genealogy? Just recall the current project in which I’ve got myself entangled. I’m racing my way back in history to a supposed point on my mother’s line from which I can catapult forward in time, tracing every woman’s line back down to modern times. Concurrently, my mystery cousin is pushing his way back through the generations on his mother’s line.

We are hoping to meet in the middle.

Considering stories like the miscalculations of the Transcontinental Railroad, this does not bode well for us.

For almost any such project, it provides a warning of dire consequences. Do not, for instance, think any hearsay that you are related to George Washington, or Charlemagne—or whoever strikes your fancy from the halls of history—is an appropriate impetus to begin your own Transcontinental project. You and history will not meet up in the middle.

And neither will we—possibly. At least our Transcontinental project is more like a U-turn than a badly conceived straight line. But I still need to keep in mind the risks inherent in such a project. And, above all, not yield to the temptation to “make it work” by bending a few fuzzy possibilities into links. After all, I’m not up for being a passenger on a genealogical train wreck.

Above: "The Last Spike," 1881 painting by Thomas Hill, commemorating the 1869 ceremony of the driving of the Last Spike of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Shoot the Moon

Trajectory may be everything, when it comes to hitting a moving target. And yes, my genealogical target is ever in motion, for I’m tracing the surname changes through the generations of my matrilineal line. Not only that, but I’m seeking to connect that line—as our mitochondrial DNA test results tell us—to that of a man whose mother is an exact match to me. Somewhere, way back in time, his mother and my mother share a joint mother’s mother’s mother.

Only thing: which generation turns out to be the nexus between our two lines, we don’t know. I know where I’ve ended up: with a woman named Mary Taliaferro who became wife of Thomas Firth Rainey in Georgia. I guess you can call this my current matrilineal terminus.

In his train ride through the maternal generations, my mystery cousin has also made progress back to the early 1800s. Only problem: his final stop led him back to Kentucky, not Georgia.

We have not made a connection. Yet.

Obviously, our moving target is still moving. Backwards in time, we need to chase the maternal generations yet one more time. At least.

Frustrating as that may seem, you have to remember a lot has been accomplished on the part of this mystery cousin. First, he had to overcome an enormous obstacle: having been adopted, up until last month, he had no idea who to name as Step One on his matrilineal trail. I bet finding me as his exact match for the DNA test was indeed an adrenaline rush. After all, of all my “matches” for the mtDNA test, I have none that display as exact match. None. Apparently, neither does he.

Of course, that in itself doesn’t mean much. Our common ancestor could still be centuries beyond our reach. After all, an exact match could mean someone living within a range of the last seven hundred to one thousand years. That would call for an exceedingly long—and nigh impossible—paper trail.

But let’s get started anyhow. After all, a journey of a thousand miles—or generations—begins with but one step.

Here’s how Joel’s thousand steps start out. For privacy’s sake, I’ll start with the maiden names of those no longer living. With certainty, my mystery cousin can assert that his great grandmother’s maiden name was Forbes. From there, the maiden name in the next generation was McLaughlin.

By then, we are back in Texas in the late 1800s. The surname trail begins to grow cold. The next step might be a maiden name of Stinebaugh—name of a family moving to Cooke County, Texas, from Missouri. Or could it be Stonebough? Unfortunately for us, the only marriage record accessible online carries with it that frustrating Southern convention of including only initials for first and middle name—compounded by the fact that these details can be only gleaned from a transcription, not an actual digitized document. Could Stonebough be merely sloppy rendering of the handwritten Stinebaugh? Or should this be the new search trail to explore?

Frustratingly, of the death certificates that could be located for Frances B. Stinebaugh McLaughlin’s children, the entry for mother’s maiden name reads a disappointing “unknown.” No help there.

Following Frances and her parents from 1880 Cooke County, Texas, to their former home in Missouri, there is a Stinebaugh family which matches the names of her parents, William and Sarah A. Stinebaugh. While I can’t locate the family in 1870, in 1860—minus Frances, of course—there is a small household comprised of farmer William Stinebaugh and his wife, Sarah A. The ages, incredibly, seem to match, as do the states in which each person was born—Missouri for William, Kentucky for Sarah.

As to Sarah’s maiden name, though, I have yet to find any documentation. I haven’t found any reasonable listings in Missouri—nor in Kentucky. My only clue—and this one would be a very weak link—is that their 1860 household contained a farmhand by the name of Jasper B. Wills—the very surname other researchers have associated with Sarah, herself. While it is not lost upon me that this Jasper also happened to be born in Kentucky—as had Sarah—it could still just be a matter of a farmhand being simply a farmhand. Just in case, though, I’ll keep that hint in mind.

According to the 1860 census—if this, indeed, is the snapshot of the right Stinebaugh family in Missouri—Sarah would have been born around 1839. Barring any discoveries of marriage records for a William Stinebaugh and bride named Sarah, my next task will be to scour the findings for Kentucky, paying special attention to any families containing both a Sarah and a Jasper, with a surname Wills.

Even if that turns out to be correct, though, it will still be a hollow victory. You see, while I’m tracing my way backwards in time through my mystery cousin’s matrilineal line, I’m also working forward in all the female lines connecting to my own matrilineal line. While my work is in no way completed there, I have yet to run across any mention of the surname Wills. Nor Stinebaugh. Not even McLaughlin. There may be two or three generations yet to go from that point before I run into any familiar maiden names—if even then.

Hitting a moving target is always a challenge. So many variables need to be taken into consideration. As I move back through the generations—not only on my matrilineal line, but also on that of my distant cousin—I am doing just that: tracking a moving target. That target may be close. Or it may be quite distant, indeed.

It used to be considered impossible to hit a target as immense as the moon. Removed so far from us, even at our vantage point, it presented a visible target—yet the distance was so vast as to render the feat impossible.

Now, we know differently. All it took was technology. Today, we can say we have aimed for the moon, and hit our moving target.

Someday—DNA testing, digitized document collections and search algorithms combined—we will be able to say the same for genealogical quests we currently think impossible. I’m certainly game to think I can shoot for this moon of mine.

Above: Seaport by Moonlight, 1771 oil on canvas by Claude Joseph Vernet; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Testing Genealogical Hypotheses

I’ve heard it said that those who get lost in the woods sometimes wander in circles. Perhaps that is an urban legend, perpetuated by city slickers fearful of wilderness experiences.

Right now, I’m in my own genealogical wilderness experience, and I can certify: I am wandering in circles.

My task is deceptively straightforward: find the mother of my mother’s mother’s mother. Simple, right?

So I started out with my mother, moved to my maternal grandmother, and stretched only slightly to arrive at her mother, Sarah Ann Broyles, born in Washington County, Tennessee to proud parents Thomas and Mary Broyles in 1873.

So far, so good.

While a number of people—and the family Bibles and genealogies they’ve kept—tell me Sarah’s mother was named Mary, they never seemed to agree on the spelling of her maiden name. Some said Rainey. Some insisted it was Ramey. Sometimes, the “e” or the “i” were removed from the spelling. Nearly all agreed, however, that Mary Rainey—or however she spelled it—was born to a mother who once was a Taliaferro.

How she spelled her surname—and even who her mother was—quickly became a moot point, however, as she only lived six years from the point of her marriage to Thomas Broyles in January, 1871. Her children—Sarah Ann and her sister Mary Nellie being the only ones surviving to adulthood—were raised by a step-mother. Likely, the girls remembered very little about their birth mother.

They did, however, remember one detail about their mother: they said she was raised an orphan. I had taken that family report literally, applying liberal doses of current reality to my understanding of just what it would have meant, in the 1860s, to be raised as an orphan. That, of course, would have meant the trail went cold with the very next generation. I would never be able to complete my research quest.

Now, I’ve come to the realization that being “raised an orphan” back in that era simply meant Mary Rainey’s parents both died before she came of age, herself. Fortunately, in the very city in which she was married—and had previously showed up in the 1870 census record—I had located her living with a brother. With two family names to trace, now, it helped to locate a family constellation that matched the picture in the preceding census, when the mother was still living. And likewise in the census prior to that, when both parents were still alive.

Moving back to the previous generation, though, isn’t proving to have as thoroughly laid out a paper trail. Mary’s mother’s name did indeed turn out to also be Mary—as family stories had led me to believe—and likely a Taliaferro, conforming to other researchers’ findings. At least, that’s what one Georgia marriage record to a Thomas Rainey indicated.

Where this Mary fits into the Taliaferro picture, though, is not making itself clear. That’s where I’ve been wandering in circles. I have yet to find any documentation yielding up the clue that points me to this Mary’s parents’ names. I can guess, though, based on where her youngest children ended up, after her death: somewhere in the family of Charles Boutwell Taliaferro, son of Warren and Mary Gilmer Taliaferro.

Perhaps Mary Taliaferro Rainey was a sister to Charles. After all, being the only brother among several sisters, Charles would have been the most appropriate choice for guardianship for Mary’s remaining underage children. Charles was certainly well-off enough to support a few more family members.

I’ve gone round and round in circles, trying to make some documentation paperwork stick in that gap in the genealogical paper trail. To no avail; I’ve made no progress despite strong effort.

Though we all have been so rigorously trained to do otherwise, I’m very tempted to begin doing “what if” scenarios, testing out possible parents for this Mary Taliaferro Rainey. Since my end goal is to find a nexus between my matrilineal line and that of my mitochondrial DNA test “exact match” mystery cousin, I’m already in a testing process. I’m working my way back in time in my mother’s line, and concurrently, tracing back this cousin’s line as well.

So far, this cousin’s line ends up in Kentucky in the 1830s, and yet, all I can find in my line at that point is a family settled in Georgia. Not close enough to find the nexus in this generation—which means sending me backwards in time for yet another generation. Or maybe even more.

On my line, that means a generational tour from Davis to McClellan to Broyles to Rainey to Taliaferro. But which Taliaferro? There were many to choose from, back in the days just following the American Revolution. Soldiers returning from battle brought home stories of wonderful lands, ripe for successful farming—and bounty rewards for their participation in the war effort to get them that new farm property in that distant paradise. Somehow, I’ve got to sort through all the possibilities to target the right family.

It all sounds so much like guesswork—not the staid process of evidence-based research. Dare I toy with hypotheses in a case like this? Run a name up the hypothesis flagpole and see if anyone salutes?

If I do follow my hunch that Mary Taliaferro was daughter of Warren and Mary Gilmer Taliaferro, that means I now begin pursuing the maternal line of this elder Mary. This will lead me to her mother, Elizabeth Lewis, and beyond that, to her mother, Jane Strother. I would then have to work back down in time, seeking each mother’s daughters and trace their daughters’ lines forward in time, to see if any such daughter would have a female descendant who became part of my mystery cousin’s matrilineal line.

All this, though, would be based merely on the hypothesis that my known matrilineal point—Mary Taliaferro Rainey—was daughter of Warren and Mary Gilmer Taliaferro. Which, at this point, I simply do not know.

Now that I’ve laid out the trajectory for my matrilineal line, tomorrow we’ll take a look at the matrilineal line of my mystery cousin, to determine who our targeted match might be.

Above: "Crawford Notch" painting by Thomas Hill, depicting the site of the 1826 Willey family tragedy in the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire subsequently commemorated by over four hundred artists as "White Mountain Art" of the nineteenth century; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Needed: More Time

Why is it that the more I give up in obligations—so I can devote the proper amount of time to the rest of the to-do list—the more challenged I feel when it comes to getting things done?

This is the kind of moment that puts me in mind of the old Lewis Carroll classic: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”

The gift of Time would probably be my most cherished birthday gift. I am reminded of the Ben Franklin admonition: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

How to make the most of that time? I find some of the things that mean the most to me end up taking up the most of my time.

Take reading. Now that I’m deeply into the blogging world, I like to go visiting other bloggers’ sites. Yet, to read just one post…and then another…and another…suddenly we’re talking about a lot of time gone by.

How to redeem the time? Yes, I know the stock answer is to read faster. And everyone has their favorite speed-reading class to recommend. But I don’t want to read faster. I read to savor the essence of what the writer is getting at. You may as well tell the ladies at tea time to steep faster. It simply isn’t appropriate.

So, I look for pockets of time that can be exchanged—like using time doubly when I’m a captive audience anyhow. For instance, how about listening to blog posts while I’m driving? It takes me at least twenty minutes, just to drive to town. Obviously, I can’t read while I’m driving—I haven’t got a chauffeur (although I’ve caught drivers on the road, making that attempt). But I can listen while I drive. Why bother trying to find just what I want on the currently-available radio stations, when I could be listening to something I want to know, but for the lack of someone to produce the material for me to listen to?

I’ve toyed with the idea of podcasts before. Remember, I have a broadcast background in radio. We have the technology for stuff like that—even us bloggers of low degree. What if my blog reading list could be turned into my podcast play list? I could go for that.

Yes, I’m aware that there is already a supply side for the genealogical podcast market (which, at this point, may only be me). But I don’t want to only listen to Lisa Louise Cooke—even if she does have a million downloads of her one hundred eighty episodes. It’s kinda rough on the ol’ driver, trying to take notes on research techniques while in the middle of traffic, ya know?

And I’m not sure I’d want to be captive audience to only Marian Pierre-Louis. Though I’m sure she delivers a valuable production, her podcasts are focused on the needs of the genealogy professional. Though I may be an avid researcher, I’m not a professional—nor do I play one on TV.

What about all the rest of us bloggers? What will it take for us to find our voice and start podcasting?

I’d love to tune in to a spoken version of the many blogs I follow. Just think of it: a series to rival any radio station’s morning show—and totally devoted to genealogy. You reading your blog aloud, I reading mine—all part of a collection anyone could tap into during the forty minutes of downtime in the day, next time she headed into town.

A dream. But it could be a possibility. After all, we do have the technology.

Above: "The Red Queen's Race," illustration by Sir John Tenniel for the Lewis Carroll book, Through the Looking-Glass; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Still Not Enough

While I’ve been chattering away about various topics that strike my fancy, here on A Family Tapestry, behind the scenes I’ve been feverishly working away at my Taliaferro family tree. You know how it goes: in order to document just how I connect with all those DNA matches I’ve acquired, I have to have a complete record of the family’s genealogy.

Right now, I’m up to seven hundred fifty matches for the “Family Finder” test—Family Tree DNA’s user-friendly term for the autosomal DNA test that can identify relatives up to the range of sixth cousin (sometimes even more).

My thinking was that if I could add the collateral lines to this family’s records on my tree at, I could discover the surnames that married into the Taliaferro descendants’ history—which would then guide me to figure out how I match some of these seven hundred fifty other people.

Since I’ve had a go at this process for a few weeks—primarily using old genealogies published in the late 1800s and early 1900s—I thought it might be time to “harvest” some of the results. So, I pulled up my matches at Family Tree DNA and, using the company's search function, entered some of those newly-discovered surnames—like Lingo, Meriwether or Watkins. Some, admittedly, were too generic to be useful—names like Lewis, Jones and Greene. Some were so unusual as to yield no search results at all—so far.

Of course, even though it feels as if I’ve been feverishly entering data non-stop for the past few weeks, this particular database only contains fourteen hundred individuals. Small, admittedly, in the face of my desktop-resident database program, which topped fourteen thousand ages ago. However, that would be comparing apples to oranges, as my online tree is specific to my maternal line only, while the computer-based genealogical program encompasses the big splat of my whole family—my maternal and paternal lines, plus both my husband’s lines, and a few other diversions, as well. Still, fourteen hundred seems like a drop in the bucket.

Even so, trying to compare those fourteen hundred names to the multiple names on each of my matches’ trees has been a challenge. You simply cannot eyeball this, but neither can I jump to a spreadsheet program. Why? I’m just not confident with my abilities to scour the data correctly.

Of course, there is no time like the present to learn new tricks. FTDNA allows customers to download their results in a spreadsheet format. I should just give that option a twirl. Not that I’m terrified of a data dump or anything, but for some strange reason, I hesitate. Perhaps this would be the perfect time to search for a database management class—like Spreadsheets 101 for Genetic Genealogy. Why no one teaches a class like that at those fancy DNA conferences, I’ll never know. Seems like by the time everyone gets their head around the introductory science lectures, they are too brain-weary to attempt learning how to manipulate the data they’ve obtained from these tests.

In the meantime, it looks like lots of data entry is in my immediate future, before I can find the way to connect with any of my DNA matches. The score so far for confirmed matches hovers at a lowly five—not an impressive showing for those seven hundred fifty possibilities.

Guess I’ll have to type faster.

Above: Young woman typing, photograph circa 1906 by photography company, Underwood & Underwood; image courtesy United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sense of Place

With temperatures here in northern California sneaking up into the seventies, the urge to be outside catching some sun is overwhelming. Along with that change of venue comes the predictable: a great desire to get some blooms into those flower pots on my front porch.

What we do with the space that surrounds us tells almost as much about us as our conversations with friends or our habits around family. What do we do with the “margins” surrounding our lives? Do we fill them up to over-brimming? Leave the space stark, devoid of any clues? Or strike a workable balance?

Sometimes, those telltale margins shift through our ages and stages. When I was a crazy college kid, writing letters back home (yes, back when we only had wood-burning telephones—and let me tell you, they were expensive!), I filled up every square inch of paper. I was known as “The Empty Space Fiend.”

Now that you know that, it will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that the first time I laid eyes on the stark décor featured in a Pottery Barn catalog, my immediate thought was, “And people live in these places?!” (In their defense, to the original sterile palette, they have since added books, cushions, and other comfy signs of life.)

Of course, what I did with my margins during those stages of life was heavily influenced by the necessities of my economic standing. By the time, long after graduation, that I finally emerged from Starving Student status, I had entered the realm of two-jobs-plus-overtime. Oh, and I started my first business. There was no margin.

Lately, the phrase, “sense of place” has been reverberating in my mind. I first was impressed with this concept when reading Melissa Mannon’s blog, ArchivesInfo. Two years ago, she posted some brief comments prompted by the same thoughts I mentioned above. For Melissa, being “connected to a space” was an important orienting factor: “It is when I un-tether from [my] surroundings that I feel out of sorts.” Artwork on her walls and flowers outside her picture windows were important aspects anchoring her with a sense of place.

While making a place for yourself may seem to be the realm of the artist or the interior decorator, we each have a way of handling the space around us. It’s our way of claiming a toe-hold on what surrounds us—our environment.

Whether you’ve given that concept some thought or not, I want to encourage you to not only think of yourself here, but to consider what you might glean about your ancestors by the telltale signs they left behind: the pictures they chose to hang on their walls, the books they chose to surround themselves with.

Actually, the very places they chose to call home can tell us much about them—not only their personality but their circumstances as well. The space they claimed from the area surrounding them—and what they subsequently did with that space—reveals something about their personality, their view of their life situation, their economic and social standing and, perhaps, even more.

I think of my Polish-American ancestors, likely thrust, upon arrival in the New World, into the squalor that was the nineteenth century Brooklyn of the teeming immigrant masses. What made them seek to escape to the better neighborhoods of Queens borough to the north? What about my husband’s immigrant Catholic forebears, settling originally near the coastlands of Maryland—what led them to choose the relative risks of the wilderness of Ohio at the dawn of the 1800s? And what Sense of Place were my Southern relatives seeking, as they moved, generation by generation, farther south and then farther west?

All these people were surrounding themselves with what they hoped would make life better for them: more farmland, a bigger house, a quieter community—or a busier city.

While life in past ages may have seemed (to us, at least) simpler, people have always filled their lives with stuff. I can’t help but think of the Bean family, making the long and risky journey “around the Horn” from Maine to San Francisco—and hauling their beautiful furniture with them. Even the ones who left it all behind soon found ways to replace what they couldn’t take with them. Why? Their “Sense of Place” radar demanded it of them. We all need a way to make our space feel like home.

Some of us are fortunate enough to be the proud possessors of those items that once gave our ancestors that Sense of Place. While it might not have been a silver service, it would still have served the same purpose. Whether a framed needlepoint creation or a quilt for the bed, each piece fulfilled that important function of claiming and taming a small portion of the environment to call one's own. It is in how that turf was claimed that the tokens reveal something to us of our ancestors’ preferences and, ultimately, of their personality.

Above: Johannes Vermeer, "The Geographer," 1669 oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Are Books Obsolete?

You are probably thinking such a question incredulous, especially following on the heels of mega-events such as the double-header RootsTech-FGS Conference extravaganza, where attendees likely scheduled extra time for research at the world’s largest genealogical library.

Right. That library holds at least three hundred thousand volumes of genealogical books. Oh, and over seven hundred thousand microfiche. Not to mention microfilmed rolls numbering in the millions. Books? A fraction of the total picture, when it comes to genealogical research.

Even so, I still get ecstatic when I can get hold of a volume that contains surnames from my family. I like books.

I ask this question for a secondary reason, though. Recently, our genealogical society’s board was discussing this very question. The issue at hand is the fact that many such societies task themselves with preserving old documents from their localities through the process of publishing books useful for research. In addition to adding to the body of knowledge that other researchers find useful, selling such publications becomes a way to fund further activities of the society. In other words, publishing provides a society’s livelihood. Not publishing is the equivalent of losing a fundraising revenue stream. Like the old academic’s dilemma: publish or perish.

What’s a local genealogical society to do? If no one is buying books any longer, a society will—eventually—no longer be selling books.

That puts someone like me—a member of said genealogical society’s board—in a tough place. I love books, personally. But I hate to see good money thrown after bad, investing time and money into a project which is ultimately doomed to fail—at least from the sales angle.

Enter a secondary dynamic into the ring: that of the big players in the genealogical market. Used to be, the care and feeding of genealogical researchers was left to specialty publishers and genealogical societies. Now, genealogy is big business—sometimes so big, it can run the little guys off the playing field.

Does this become a chicken and egg dilemma, questioning which comes first—the lack of purchaser interest, or the lack of viable product to sell? Those “big guys” in the genealogy market supply side are often aggregators of material already in existence. Not so for local societies like mine: we create our own material, often from source documents no one in the large companies has deemed worthy of mass producing. You could say ours is a micro-niche market. But at least we had a market.

And so the debate winds around, from “nobody buys books anymore” to “the big companies have it all” to “no, they don’t include anything from our county.”

Perhaps the answer is a smarter form of needs assessment—the savvy market survey. Perhaps we need to learn from those who’ve experienced success in markets other than genealogy. Obviously, there are people out there making a living, supplying needs that others are willing to pay money for, providing some very specialized products. Why can’t we do that for the genealogy market?

Included in that discussion would be a return to the very question I started off with: are books obsolete? Can a genealogy book find life in today’s digitized world?

If given a choice, which would you buy?

Above: Giuseppe Crespi, "Bookshelf with music writings," oil on canvas circa 1725; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Got Any Presidents in Your Roots?

Now that you’ve dabbled in your family history—at least enough to see where the trail meanders, back through time—have you stumbled upon any unexpected realizations? Have you been surprised to find you are related to anyone famous? Discovered any celebrities? Or, at least, nefarious characters?

Since we are wrapping up the official Presidents Day weekend, who has any presidential relatives to share?

If you don’t have any fascinating genealogical connections, don’t despair. Neither do I. Although I’ve come close. Remember my first husband, that tall guy with Marfan Syndrome? He used to joke about how his maternal grandmother later married a man named Lincoln—and about how likely it was that he was related to the Lincoln family.

It didn’t take me long to fire back, “Yeah, and I’m related to the Booth family!”

And I may well be, though I haven’t found the smoking gun. Yet.

While working on my maternal McClellan line, many years ago, I connected with a distant cousin’s in-law who claimed relation to President Ulysses S. Grant. I thought it ironic that his connection was through one of my southern lines. Oh, how I wanted to retort, “And I’m related to Lee.”

About the closest I can come to a famous connection has been through my mother-in-law’s line. Someone way up-line had married into a family which then had a relationship that connected, eventually, with astronaut—and later, senator—John Glenn. If that circuitous genealogical route makes you dizzy, don’t be surprised. Sometimes when that genealogical “what if” game gets played, someone will always want to shoot for the moon. That’s when we need to come back down to earth with a serious look at the paper trail.

Now that I’ve been exploring another line in my mother’s heritage, I recently discovered that an in-law (several generations back, of course) was the daughter of an almost-President. Politics being politics, then-Vice President John C. Calhoun found himself on the losing side of some debates which cinched his political fate.

So, I guess I can’t really claim any brush with fame or fortune. But that’s okay. I constantly find it helpful to remind myself that I’m tasked with being a biographer of insignificant lives. And look how many stories there have been to find. With anonymity like that, who else would have been there to tell their stories?

If you are like me—no famous relatives or even rich uncles to brag about—then take heart that with each genealogical discovery you make and tell, you are passing along a story that is worth sharing. Though the names of your ancestors may not be up in lights on the theater marquee, nor the tale included in The New York Times bestseller list, someone from your line of descendants will one day be glad you took the time to tell the story.

Above: Photograph of United States President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, taken in 1864 by American photographer Anthony Berger; courtesy United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Well, we are now deep in the middle of Valentine’s Day weekend—Presidents’ Day, if you want to get technical, but who spends the greater part of this weekend focused on Presidents?

Those of us who had the brilliant idea of arranging their marriage to coincide with Valentine’s Day may have, at one point, patted ourselves on the back for the two-fer maneuver—until we tried to escape town for subsequent re-enactments of the occasion. Anniversary trips on this three day weekend don’t come cheap. Nor secluded.

No romantic getaway for us, this weekend. We’ve postponed our good intentions for a more convenient time when we can really wander the shoreline in seclusion somewhere. We settled for dinner in town, dessert and coffee at home and a nice quiet evening. A beautiful bouquet of roses will do as much to remind us of our special weekend as would any out-of-town extravaganza.

And one more thing: we did exchange gifts.

While I am so grateful for the gift I received this weekend, I did have to laugh at the thought of it. I’ve heard people talk about “golf widows”—those poor women left all alone while their husbands, consumed with the game, play just one more round. Again.

I suppose the same could be said for women left behind while their husbands go on extended hunting trips in Wyoming, or Alaska. Or, forget that—how about big game in Africa?

But I never gave that dynamic any thought until my husband—the one called upon to serve as emcee for our genealogical society’s annual dinner event—got on a roll with some of his genealogy husband jokes. Judging from the guffaws coming from his audience, he had plenty of company in his genealogical martyrdom.

Granted, I do spend a lot of time on my research. There is so much yet to do. Not that I have this mandate to get back to Adam or anything. But there is always just a little bit more to find. A little bit more to read. A little bit more…

It never dawned on me that there might be such a thing as a genealogy widower. When it comes right down to it, though, I have to admit I’m smitten: I’ve been bitten by the genealogy bug. And my genealogy-widower husband found just the perfect way to say, “I love you.” He bought me a book. A genealogy book.

Not just any book, mind you. My husband was perceptive in isolating the perfect specimen. A while back, when I began this current pursuit of my Broyles line—the one inter-marrying with the Taliaferro family—I had discovered a volume originally published in 1913. Written by Richard Wright Simpson—actually, a distant relative of mine—it is a volume of just the right blend of local history and genealogy.

The book, History of Old Pendleton District, provides a narrative of the early days of what now spans both Pendleton and Anderson counties in South Carolina. While I could obtain the text via digitized versions on sites such as Internet Archive, I was glad to see the book is still available—albeit in reprint format—for sale now. While I’m ecstatic about what can be accessed online, thanks to the push to preserve these old tokens of our heritage, there is nothing like holding a book in your hands, settling into a cozy chair, and reading.

The Love of My Life knows that. He can identify with that. There is nothing like a book. Both of us have large collections of publications on our favorite topics. Though he may not be keen on the many hours of research I’ve put in—he is, after all, a genealogy widower, himself—he does reap some of the benefits in the fascinating details I’ve been able to unearth about a few branches of his own family. And, to his credit, he is a very patient man.

And discerning. After all, how many husbands bought their wives a gift like that for their Valentine’s weekend?!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The DNA Grand Right and Left

Like one big Valentine’s Day square dance of genetic genealogy, my mitochondrial DNA test results lead me on a Grand Right and Left through the romance of generations. With each successive “pull by,” my supposed ancestral DNA moves backwards in time from one surname to another.

In my maternal grandmother’s case, she was known as a McClellan—until the day of her marriage to a Davis. Moving to the previous partner—the generation preceding that “I do” which transformed her into a McClellan—the mother in that case was once a Broyles. The next “partner” in time—the generation before that—had me considering a woman with the surname Rainey. Or was it Ramey? Or Raney? Or…well, I’ve decided on Rainey, at least for now. Which means the dance leads me to the possibility of a Taliaferro for the next step backwards in time.

McClellan to Broyles to Rainey to…then what? Even if it is Taliaferro for the next dance step, I can’t stay there long. This square dance never stops moving. With each preceding generation in this mtDNA test comes a change in surnames.

Tracing backwards in time for the male line—which is measured by the Y-DNA test—generally takes a man back through the generations with one constant: the surname (theoretically) does not change. Not so for the women. Every iteration of the generations requires a change of “partners”—a change of surname. There is no constant to insure you’re tracing the right line.

Compound that uncertainty with flaws in the genealogical record—published genealogies from past centuries, for instance—and it can leave a researcher on the dance floor paralyzed with uncertainty.

As I connect with potential matches on my autosomal DNA test results—the third type of DNA testing, used to match cousins within a range of about seven generations or less—I’ve found some promising toe-holds in the data pointing me to one specific Rainey line. I can infer certain specifics from that successful match—especially regarding the maiden name of that joint ancestor. Whoever she was—whether “Nancy,” as some genealogical books name her, or Mary, as the 1818 Oglethorpe County marriage records in Georgia have it—she was recorded as being a Taliaferro.

But which one? As unusual as the surname Taliaferro might seem to us nowadays, it was not an uncommon name in the South at the time in which Thomas Rainey and Mary Taliaferro were married.

Unsure exactly how to proceed—but not wishing to stand stock still, paralyzed with uncertainty—I’ve decided to explore a few hypotheses and see if any further DNA test matches can bear me out. That means making some presumptions about Mary’s parentage—and then searching to see whether I have any matches on that particular line.

Of course, I’ll still proceed with caution. Any time I can secure documentation to indicate what really happened, way back when, I will use it. But accessing records created back then—preceding the early 1800s—is a different matter than calling up digitized documentation of, say, census records at the other end of that century. Yes, many of the old genealogies are now digitized and widely available, but as we’ve already noted, some of those publications are rife with errors of their own. I’m afraid my own family line is one falling in those cracks.

Trained to adhere to proper genealogical protocol, we often feel we cannot add a name to our records without duly sourcing the information. No document, no inclusion in the record. Thinking outside the box—coloring outside the lines—these are forbidden moves under such confines. Yet somehow, I’ve got to test for possibilities. There are discrepancies between traditionally held genealogies and longstanding governmental documentation. Obviously, one of the two is incorrect. Until I can determine—definitively—which one is what really happened in history, I can’t proceed with the paper trail to confirm DNA test results.

Since I have a large number of autosomal DNA matches yet to connect to that paper trail, I suspect some of them will align with these as-yet undetermined matrilineal line connections. Hopefully, lurking in those undocumented matches will be ancestors whose presence on my DNA dance floor will lead me to partner up with the right maiden names in this grand procession backwards in time.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Under-the-Weather Genealogy

While the genealogy blogosphere is ramping up the chatter about mega-events RootsTech and FGS 2015—this year’s conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies—it’s a good thing I didn’t make plans to join the festivities. Yup, yours truly is under the weather.

Nothing serious. Just the kind of malaise that isn’t bad enough to knock me out, but not good enough to keep up my usual activity level. Not sleepy. But tired.

What to do with such a dilemma? Well, that question is easy to answer for a genealogy fanatic: do online research. I’ve been amassing data from reference books which provide family trees to several lines related to my Taliaferro ancestors, diligently copying down the trees I’ve been finding.

Somehow, when housed in a recognized genealogical publication from a past century, a book’s trees take on an aura of infallibility. I was well into the process of making notes on these established records when it struck me: what’s the difference between copying notes from a hundred-year-old genealogy book and copying notes from an online tree?

Remember those periodic diatribes about how amateurish it is to copy from others’ trees posted online? I first ran into those debates years ago, when searching for any mention of my ancestors on Rootsweb. The harangue had been resurrected for the advent of—and will likely suffer re-runs with each iteration of a “next gen” genealogy product. There is a large body of people incensed at the ability of online researchers to see others' research—worse, to actually use it as trailblazer material to lead them in the right direction.

Bottom line: it is e-vul to do so. Not just evil. Evul. Ask anyone in my daughter’s generation. There is a special place like no other reserved for “evul.”

But wait: isn’t copying copying? I mean, what’s the difference between noting the details of a tree compiled by a researcher one hundred years ago, and noting the details of a tree compiled by a researcher one year ago?

Don’t think this is the time to step up on the soap box of how utterly amateurish this current batch of come-one, come-all researchers is. For all I know, you could be saying that about me. Come to think of it, if I get caught up in that argumentative frenzy, I could be saying that about you. And we’d all get so wrapped up in the rhetoric of the thing, we’d lose sight of the inanity of the argument.

The point is: just as much as we need to exercise the utmost care in examining first before lifting any details from another researcher’s tree available online now, we should be employing the same diligence, even when examining the revered publications of past centuries. Anyone can make mistakes. Actually, since we are so uniquely gifted with research tools that previous generations couldn’t even begin to dream of having, I’d say it is more likely that some of those older genealogies harbor mistakes.

So, true confessions: I’ve been spending the last week, taking the Taliaferro trees and putting them in database format, just so I could get a handle by which to grab and examine the details. I didn’t question anything I found—just kept copying. After completing one book’s details, I went to the appropriate sections in other books which included my lines, and cross-checked those details against what I had already entered in my database.

And now comes the big challenge: going back to all those ancestors, all their siblings, and all their descendants, to see if I can locate documentation online to support those published assertions. And why not? If that is what is expected of all those amateurs romping through the wide open fields of or the new trees at, then we need to hold these old genealogy formats to the same standard. After all, they may perpetuate some errors of their own. Just because they are permanently recorded in ink doesn’t make them less wrong. An error is an error—whether virtual or not—and the best way to prove a line is to document it.

Today, when I just didn’t feel up to getting on my feet and doing much of anything, with iPad in hand, I played the couch potato and flipped through the generations, seeing what documentation could be linked with each Taliaferro entry. In a way, it’s tedious work. There are so many names already entered. But in another way, I realize that, as researchers, we are totally spoiled with all the Internet access to digitized records that we have. Just think of the time and expense that would otherwise have been called for in rounding up all those documents in an earlier era of genealogical research.

Though being sick isn’t fun—not even the "little bit" sick I’ve been—this actually provided me the excuse to just sit down and do it: plug away at finding the evidence to confirm that these genealogical lines are documented correctly. Though I’m missing the excitement of the conference rush at the premier genealogical destination in this country, that’s okay. Sometimes, you just have to be grateful for the way timing and opportunities align, even if it isn’t the dream ticket of the day.

Above: "Rainy Evening on Hennepin Avenue," oil on canvas circa 1902 by Robert Koehler; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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