Monday, February 29, 2016

Two Parts to Telling the Story

Being part of an overnight vigil at the bedside of a loved one may or may not be part of your personal history. Our modern culture has been sanitized of most signs of the inevitable nadir of the human condition.

Despite this, the other night, I found myself sitting in a darkened hospital room, waiting. Among other aspects, waiting intertwines tightly with one of my personal pitfalls: that of a mind which actively wanders. Like a heat-seeking missile, given the opportunity, my mind zeroes in on all the rabbit trails meandering away from the issue in focus. And so, while the silent night hours dragged on, I caught myself thinking of another woman—one much more experienced in such bedside vigils than I.

Her name was Martha Cassandra Boothe. Lest you assume that name, sounding overly presumptuous, was attached to a person of great importance, perhaps it would help restrain your mental-image-designer to know that, in her tiny hillside community, she was referred to as Aunt Cassie. As in, "Send for Aunt Cassie; Ma's almost gone now."

The only reason I know this—after all, such comments were uttered in the wee hours of mornings well over a hundred years ago—is because someone told me. In fact, the only reason that person—my mother—knew is because someone told her.

By now, I'm sure you've guessed that Aunt Cassie was somehow related to me. If so, you are right: "Aunt" Cassie was my mother's paternal grandmother. That she was known far and wide as the go-to person for bedside vigils for the dying in Erwin, Tennessee, I owe my gratitude to the one who told me—and the one who told her.

In researching family history, the buzz right now is all about "story." We've got all the technology to deliver many of the documents we need to verify why we stick those family names in the right spots on our family tree. We're so beyond those names, dates and places. Now we're clamoring for the details—how and why our family maneuvred around those places and dates and with what life details those names are connected. And the details of that "how" and "why" become their clearest and most memorable, embedded in our family's stories.

While the race is on to uncover the details for those family stories, there is something more than the content of our stories to keep in focus. We need to recall the importance of the process of storytelling, as well.

Thinking about "Aunt Cassie" reminds me that there are two aspects to the benefits of that storytelling process.

The first is that, as a craftsman of the stories of our family's history, we are capturing and preserving the why of our family's meaning—the importance of our family's history, both in terms of those living during our ancestors' lives, and in the context of our own time frame, the era of that ancestor's descendants. If our ancestors hadn't preserved that oral history of the life and times of our family, how would we have even known? For that, we must thank those family members who had the foresight to pass along those stories.

There is, however, a second aspect we need to remember. Not only is it important that someone back in time told the story, preserved it and delivered it to the ones who told us, but it is also essential to realize that we are not the end game of the family storytelling relay. We have to remember to take our place in this chain of family micro-history and pass it on to future generations. And that is the second aspect: the essential element of equipping others to tell those stories to future generations.

Some prefer to encourage interest in family history in the young by seeking out books geared to their level. Some feel that supporting fledgling genealogists is the answer, and are advocates for scholarship programs or writing contests. No matter how we infuse subsequent generations with the zeal to keep these treasures of family history alive, we must achieve that goal of preserving the stories by encouraging and equipping future generations to partner with us in passing on that family history legacy.

Aunt Cassie holding a rabbit in front of her home in Erwin TN circa 1940


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Slow and Steady

Sometimes, the pursuit of family history seems like a horse race: anxiously rushing to get to the finish line. We know, however, that one can never say, "I've finished my tree." There is always one more to add to the lineage.

Other times, genealogical research can move so slowly, it stalls out. Worse, suffers a head-on, straight into a brick wall. Thankfully, I'm not there in every line, so at least I enjoy the forward movement of progress.

Lately, I've benefited from that pace which seems most suited to current circumstances: the slow and steady progress of working a bit each day, making enough progress to satisfy, not overwhelm. Carrying my iPad around to catch those spare times when waiting is the order of the moment, I've apparently been able to boost those statistics I regularly check for research progress.

One plus to this half-month worth of work came in those paternal lines which had remained dormant for several months. Admittedly, I've struggled with my own paternal line, simply because of the aliases adopted by newly-arrived immigrants in my ancestry. That's the brick wall part of the scenario. And I haven't made any headway there, even now. I'm still stuck at 180 names in that tree, same as it's been since the first of the year.

On my husband's paternal tree, however, I did budge the numbers upward—though only microscopically. I went back to collateral lines linked to his direct ancestry, in hopes of finding clues about the bigger family story, and added some names and documentation. With the addition of that mere four names, his paternal tree now stands at 937 people.

Because I've been focusing on that supplemental application for DAR for my daughter—coincidentally providing membership status for my sisters-in-law—I made the most progress on my husband's maternal line, adding 134 in the past two weeks, bringing the total count on that tree to 3,183. Keep in mind, those numbers are owing to my strategy to include collateral lines, mainly because I'm partnering that genealogical research with DNA testing; the fuller trees help align those distant cousin matches with far more ease than the traditional direct-line-only research.

On my own maternal line, the numbers bumped up another 61 names to bring the total there to 7,285.

The DNA side of the equation has been moving along quite well, with the addition of a second test for each of us at Ancestry DNA. I now have 1,045 matches at Family Tree DNA with the addition of 18 new names in the past two weeks, and received ten more matches at Ancestry DNA in the same time period, bringing the total there to 242. My husband received eight more matches at FTDNA, bringing his total there to 616. His count at Ancestry DNA rose ten to total 97.

With the past two weeks presenting an atypical schedule, I haven't had much time to focus on making contacts with those new matches. However, I did connect with two matches on my maternal line, and one on my husband's maternal line. Bit by bit, we head closer toward our goals—which is why slow and steady sometimes is the best policy, when it comes to genealogical research.

Above: "The 1821 Derby at Epsom," oil on canvas by French pioneer of the Romantic movement, Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Okay, I'm In!

Every year, without question, I've made sure to leave room on my June calendar to make the drive down to the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree. Of course, make that Jamboree Plus One—the DNA Day leading the entire event is a must-see, in my book.

This year, however, I faltered. First, there was SLIG—a pricey proposition in its own right (although technically a very generous Christmas gift from my husband). Then, there's the pressing matter of wanting to squeeze in some travel back east to visit elderly relatives across the northern corner of the country. It was beginning to look like I was running out of calendar space with all these plans.

Thus began that volley of inner negotiations. Should I? Shouldn't I? The time. The cost. The missed opportunities. The great speakers.

Wait! The speakers. I had waited all year, ever since the Ontario Genealogical Society had scheduled their powerhouse conference on the very same weekend—and spirited away some of my favorite regulars among the speakers always at Jamboree. Would the SoCal event be the same without those mainstays?

So I watched the schedule evolve with successive blog posts and announcements. And with last week's post about the schedule of sessions, I admit I'm smitten again. Not only that, it seems like a certain student of anthropology is considering joining me for the DNA Day sessions, thanks to the lure of keynote speaker, geneticist Michael Hammer of University of Arizona. It will be interesting, comparing notes with someone coming at all this genealogical application from an entirely different discipline.

With DNA Day zeroing in on "The Future of the Past: Genetic Genealogy 2016," and the remainder of the Jamboree weekend "Giving to the Future by Preserving the Past," despite missing some of my favorite speakers, it still promises to be an excellent lineup of learning opportunities.

And networking. Can't forget those important one-on-one connections. There will be plenty of those, as well.

Anyone else care to join me?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Harvesting Shaky Leaves

What to do when you don't feel like doing anything?

I'm in that kind of malaise when a soul doesn't want to do anything, a brain can't seem to engage in productive work, and yet the body doesn't want to just sit still and do nothing. If I were a crafter, I might knit, or bead, or do something monotonous, just to feel better about this dark mood I'm stuck in. After all, if nothing else, it helps to pass the time.

But alas, I'm not the artsy type, so I look for other tasks to fill that work bill. Fortunately, I've got just the project: going back through my Ancestry account and reviewing all those shaky leaves that have popped up since my last journey down that branch of the family tree. Yes, all twenty two thousand of them.

How did that happen?

Somewhere back in the most reptilian recesses of my brain, that many shaky leaf hints translates into a gargantuan to-do list. And I don't do well with to-do lists. So I need a system to vanquish this avalanche of genealogical obligations.

Normally, what I would do is review a specific branch of each family tree, insuring that all is in order and no hints have been left unturned. However, those shaky leaves have a way of sneaking up on a soul, come the springtime of every fresh addition to the Ancestry document collection. I may have finished my run through a specific family line...only to discover, just a few days later, that the very document which could answer my questions has been brought online and is awaiting my review.

These things have a way of piling up, over time.

So, while I dutifully turn my attention to the next branch on down the family tree hierarchy, a storm of shaky leaves is once again strewn in my path.

Today was a great candidate for the mind-numbing review of going back through all the hints in a more comprehensive manner. I called up the drop down menu under the name of the tree I was working on—at the time, it happened to be my mother's line—and clicked on the choice, "View All Hints Page." There, in name order for each ancestor—as well as ranging from most recent hints backwards in time—were arranged all the hints that had drifted in while I wasn't looking.

Since I have a system for how to deal with hints in general—I don't incorporate the "hint" from other Ancestry family trees into my own tree, as the reference is too generic to be useful, and I don't plug in photos from other peoples' collections, nor flags nor other sentimental gizmos; I only go for solid documentation—it was a simple matter to go through the pages one by one and delete the icons of the items I knew I wouldn't be using. In this more universal manner, I was able to dispatch a few hundred such hints to "ignore" status.

Even so, that leaves nearly sixteen thousand hints for my maternal tree alone. I have five other trees to go. It looks like, if I ever need more mindless work to do, I have ample supplies to keep me occupied.

Above: "In the Forest" by Serbian artist Nadežda Petrović, circa 1900; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

When the Obituary's
Not Quite Written Yet

Sometimes, genealogists like to brag about how they like dead people, but for me, today is not that day. A sobering bedside vigil at a hospital can cure one of such an obsession—at least for the time being.

We were surprised yesterday to realize that it's been three weeks since the beginning of what will likely be the final hospitalization of one of our good friends. In one way, it seems like we just heard the news yesterday. In another way, it has taken on the aura of one, long, endless day.

The visits to the hospital, at first to lend support to our friend, have morphed into lingering hours spent with family members. The talk has sometimes lapsed into silence, sometimes into whispered conversations better left to huddles out in the hallway...sometimes, circled around the bedside, broken into hymns...but definitely shifted from the kind of chatter one does to keep company to the reflective phrases shared quietly with those desperately seeking comfort. Sometimes, hugs alone will do where words fail. There has been a lot of holding each other up, lately.

An obituary found may become a prize to a thorough and persistent genealogist, but reading those words, "peacefully, surrounded by family and friends" is an entirely different matter when written about a long-departed ancestor than when it is being replicated in the present.

Above: "Past and Present Number Two," from the 1858 triptych by British artist Augustus Leopold Egg; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Supplemental Study

Sometimes, it's not just enough to hit one's goal. Sometimes, we are gluttons for more. When it comes to membership in lineage societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution, that genealogical extra-helping-of-pie-after-Thanksgiving-Dinner is called a Supplemental Application. And I'm just the one to do it.

You may remember my joyful—at last!—induction into the DAR, just last December. I was not alone in joining the local chapter; my daughter was inducted at the same time. Unlike myself, with my paternal line's immigrant ancestors arriving on these American shores a mere hundred thirty years ago, my daughter boasts a heritage with Patriot roots on both sides of her ancestry. In fact, that paternal line comes with not one, but two Patriots who served in the American Revolution.

For those DAR members who wish to link with additional Patriot ancestors, it is permissible to submit application for these supplemental lines. I've already mentioned that process has been in the works. But if it took me almost three years to get myself in gear and submit the original application for membership, did you think I'd vastly improve that time frame on the second go-round?

Of course not.

Oh, my. It would be my luck that the very focus of this supplemental application would be those worthy gentlemen whose lines of descent were pieced together back before even the days of wood-burning computers. Well, we did have Xerox copiers. But not much else.

You can imagine how far back in the stash of records boxes I'm having to reach to pull out those old documents. This is not going smoothly. Still, generation by generation, I'm unearthing those records gotten from decades-old research trips and putting together the application package.

Sometimes, I wonder if it would just be easier to send for the documents anew and forget about crawling through dusty corners with storage boxes.

Which introduces my quandary today: who thinks of such things when they begin their pursuit of family history ten, twenty, thirty-something years ago? We may even have been forewarned, but really, who took those warnings seriously? And that was before we had technology changes. It's almost as if it's a new game today. We may be able to bag our genealogical hunt much faster with these online resources at our fingertips today, but that also means the systems for storing genealogical search booty have changed.

And there's the rub: what resources do we have which can serve as interface between our old-fashioned storage of records and our new, electronic version? Short of sitting it out while scanning dozens of documents and—gulp—hundreds of (film) photographs, there is no quick and easy way to convert the old to the new. I'd much sooner put in the time doing research than slaving away at document conversion. But we do need to make the switch. We need a way to preserve the documents we've retrieved—and to be able to find what we've saved.

This may sound like a moot point to some. Those of you cool, calm, collected, effectively-organized researchers who have a place for everything and everything in its place may think this seems a redundant exercise. You may already have solved this problem (and if so, kudos to you...and I hope you are blogging about it so the rest of us can learn from you).

But what concerns me, as I survey the scenery that transitioned us from analog to digitized researchers, is: what's next? For surely, the disruption we've experienced in moving from hands-on research in repositories that presented us with the tangible proofs of our ancestors' existence to the online world of digitized records will some day present itself as a future shake-up, as well. If you think this transition was a one-shot deal, and now that we're in the "modern" era, we're all up to speed and done with it, think again. Just as the move into the computer age brought us into a previously-unknown world, it is quite possible we'll witness a next-generation volley of change, as well.

The constant in all this might well hinge on having an organizational system that helps us put our fingers on the documents we need, no matter what research system we use or what storage solutions we employ.

If only I had had the foresight to design such a system twenty years ago, I might have had my family's supplemental application submitted to DAR by now.

Above: "Ships Down the Sava," circa 1900, by Serbian Impressionist Nadežda Petrović; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

When Secrets Should Stay That Way

"It's all about the story" seems to be the current mantra for genealogists—and really, there's no denying that knowing the details of an ancestor's circumstances brings that person alive again when we share his or her story with our own descendants. But I'm beginning to wonder if there are some stories that just shouldn't be told. Not then, when our ancestor was alive. And not now, even though that person has long been gone.

Some secrets should stay that way.

Of course, I'm not one to talk. This blog is made up of the stories I've stumbled upon, along the way as I build out my family tree, one generation at a time. I've shared bits and pieces of my father's mystery family—the ones who emigrated from somewhere in the former Kingdom of Prussia to the urban jungles of New York City, and who decided upon arrival that it would be just the thing to change their name, immediately and unofficially. Then, too, I've shared snippets of my husband's family in their journey from the ravages of the Great Famine in County Tipperary, Ireland, through Canada, to settle in Chicago.

I've even divulged the content of letters home from the war front, when my father-in-law wrote his thoughts on facing the death of fellow sailors and marines in the heat of battle in the Pacific during World War II.

I doubt any of these people ever dreamed someone would be retelling their stories in such detail. But I've also never given it much thought—this idea of how they might have felt about seeing that story spread so far and wide.

Sometimes, we need to give that situation a second thought.

A while back, I ran across a fellow blogger who mentioned uncovering a relative's stash of love letters to the person who eventually made that solemn vow, "I do." What a treasure trove! There is immediately the desire to rush in and read the personal history of beloved family members. And yet, there is also the overwhelming sense of hesitation, as if treading on holy ground of personal privacy.

In my post yesterday, I mentioned, "the respect that doesn't disrupt that personal environment." It is indeed a challenge to intuit the best way to extract the relevant family story while simultaneously respecting a person's privacy—yes, even when they are long gone. For those we've known, the task may become easier, as we can readily admit, "Oh, she wouldn't like that," or "He always acknowledged that incident happened." Sometimes, we're even equipped with the rest of the story—reflections on how the subject of the story felt about the circumstances, or how amends were made or lessons learned—and that, too, can become part of the retelling of the story.

There are, however, some parts of a person's story that may be so private, so intimate, that the subject would never want anyone else to know. If the topic was an event or occurrence that never became part of a public record—love letters would be a prime example, no matter how endearing—that would be an instance requiring a great deal of discernment and introspection before proceeding to share.

Not quite so private, yet a similar example, might be a person's diary. As genealogists, our eyes surely light up when we discover an ancestor's private writings, but even here, we need to proceed with caution. Though the author may have passed off the scene decades ago, he or she may have left behind mentions of personal opinion about people who are still with us. As helpful as those discoveries might be in giving us research insights, they still require discretion on our part, as we determine how to share such material, and with whom it would best be shared.

Sometimes we are guided by the type of material left behind—the content of the journal or letter giving a clue as to how to proceed with sharing. Weekly weather reports or news germane to one's profession is one thing; private revelations about personal details impacting those still alive would be another matter.

Of course, those materials including someone or something of historical significance cast such personal material in a different light. Look how keenly the letters of insignificant people are pursued, when those letters were written home from the war front during the Civil War. Or when the dull, dry record books of a well-known businessman or celebrity are uncovered.

These are all ramblings as I reflect on just which stories of our family's history should be shared—and which ones should be tucked away to become history's secrets. Some things are just better left unsaid. The crux of the matter, though, is to rightly determine which stories fall into which categories.

Above: "Young Woman Reading a Letter," oil on canvas by French painter Jean Raoux; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Everybody Has a Story

Driving around town yesterday, I realized something. It's not just those "dead people" we genealogists love to research who hide those great stories. That compelling sixth sense that helps us sniff out a great story from our family history isn't part of our makeup because we do genealogy; it may just be there because, well, life is messy. And it's the messy stuff—and what we do about it—that creates great stories.

Not for the people who are going through that mess right now, of course. But later—especially for those of us who held our breath, wondering how it all would turn out—that's the stuff great stories are made of. We want to find out: did our hero make it okay? Did he or she overcome the odds, make a better life of it, learn something life-changing—or succumb to the circumstances? We want to know that, even when our hero is just the guy down the street (or the gal two generations back), no different than we are—as long as we first become aware that a story is brewing just beneath the surface of this everyday person's life.

People-watching tells us a great deal. My daughter often says she'd be content just to sit in an airport terminal and watch all the people pass by. The snippets of life that unfold before such an observer can generate volumes of visceral details for an astute storyteller.

So when my husband and I took the occasion in yesterday's beautiful weather to look around us as we drove through town, it wasn't hard to spot people and wonder what their story might be. Like the curly-bearded redhead we saw, riding his bicycle against the light, in the crosswalk on the wrong side of the street, just as traffic was attempting to turn into his lane—nonchalant to it all, he just wobbled along at the slowest speed possible. Where was he going? Why wasn't he concerned? I want to know the story.

Of course, there are always those homeless people—especially the ones with a story—whose story isn't really the one they are telling us as they ask for that dollar that will fill their gas tank and get them all the way to their home sixty miles away. I always wonder: what got them there? Are they satisfied with how things turned out? Would they have done anything different if they could? I never have the guts to march right over and accost one of them with this barrage of questions. But I still want to ask.

When you think of the myriad faces that flash by you in a day while you are at work, or rushing in to the store, or riding the train home, do they just become a blur? Or do any of those moving pictures suddenly become a stop-frame snapshot with a question posted below for a caption? Which are the faces that stay with you, long after you've left your day behind?

I realized today that these are the questions that motivate me to ferret out those human dramas. The stories that surface as I research various lines of my genealogy might seem to be secondary to a love of family history. But perhaps I've gotten that order wrong. Is it genealogy that causes us to chase the stories? Do we love the stories because we love genealogy? Or do we seek the stories, whether they are tied to our family's history or not?

When we realize that, family or not, famous or insignificant, successful or poverty-stricken, everybody has a story, it makes us understand how overwhelming the task becomes to capture and preserve the best of them—especially when we realize that, though each one of us embodies a life story, the most fascinating or compelling of them may be buried deep beneath the surface. The trick is to know how to dig without harming the personal context, to extract with the respect that doesn't disrupt that personal environment. And yet, to breathe life into the retelling of that story so it can live again for the benefit of those who weren't there at its genesis.

Above: "Habitants" painting by Canadian artist Cornelius Krieghoff, circa 1852; courtesy Library and Archives Canada via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

When Systems Collide

I have a problem—a patrilineal problem.

Now, I know that is not the typical problem you would expect the average person to encounter. In fact, not even avid aficionados of genealogy would likely encounter such a problem—unless, of course, they were taken up with the specific pursuit of genetic genealogy.

You see, I'm a systems person. I've found that, rather than dicker about little details here and there, a problem is best dealt with by looking at the big picture. I guess you can call that a holistic approach: that one part of the body of a problem will get knocked out of joint if it doesn't mesh properly with another part of that same body. Each "system" has to work in harmony with the other systems in the universe of the whole. When they don't, no amount of tampering with a screw here, or a relay there will make the whole work properly. You have to get to the root of the problem—and most often, the root will lead you back to a system that needs to get re-configured.

Enter lil ol' me into the world of genealogy. That would be way back in...oh, never mind how long ago. Let's just say I was born wanting to do genealogy, back when we only had wood-burning computers.

Well, one day as I and my family were ambling through Costco—a dangerous place to be idling away those precious minutes—on an end cap display, I spied a Broderbund software program for building your very own family tree on your wood-burning desktop computer. It was called "Family Tree Maker." I bought.

Now, don't think I am about to launch into a diatribe about the evolution of Family Tree Maker or how I've been feeling since last December. Oh, no. That deserves a post of its very own—plus updates. Numerous updates. But that's not where I want to go with today's post.

I want to mention something which occurred after that glorious time when the heavens parted, the angel choirs sang and beckoned me to a new promised land of genealogy nirvana and I bought the software. It was now, oh, roughly about the time Al Gore had invented the Internet. Not only were those genealogy addicts fans feverishly plugging family names into just the right slots on their software programs, but they were beginning to reach out to others who were engaged in the same activity.

There were questions like, "I have a John Smith, but I can't seem to find his parents...anyone else have John Smith in their tree?" Or, "Anyone working on the Frankenmuth line from Michigan?" You could celebrate genealogy Christmas in July, just by tapping into online forums at places like Rootsweb or even at Prodigy.

The most likely question to pop up, given all these queries, ultimately turned out to be, "Can you share your GEDCOM with me?" And that's where I encountered my problem.

You see, blissfully unaware of the fact that Smith researchers are really only interested in other Smith lines, and Jones researchers only want to read about Jones ancestry, I had piled my entire family tree into one big file. It was a jumble of Joneses and Smiths and Davises and Aktabowskis and Taliaferros and lions and tigers and bears.

Oh, my.

That, if you haven't yet guessed, was my systems problem: I encountered that MEGO and TMI response, every time I shared my GEDCOM. Because it had everyone in one big pile.

I decided to amend my ways. Once I signed up for my subscription to Ancestry—I can hardly believe it's been since December of 2000, according to my member profile page on their website—I decided to adopt a new system: a separate family tree for each of our parents' lines. That meant a tree for my maternal line, another for my paternal line, plus one each for my husband's two lines. Because...this is Ancestry. We can do this.

That system went along swimmingly, although I do have to mention that there was really no need to do so—who needs to request someone's GEDCOM when the trees are publicly shared, right on the Ancestry website?! That, of course, removed the very point instigating me to set up these separate trees in the first place. Still, no problem; it helped me keep things organized in my own mind.

...until I decided to spring for the AncestryDNA test. This is where those wonderful, organized systems collided. As it turns out, I, with my nice, neat, four family trees could not opt to link all of them to our two DNA profiles. Each DNA test may only—repeat, only—be linked to one tree.

So, where does that leave me? Either leaving out half of the story for each of our ancestries by capitulating to the system demand to choose one and only one tree for each of our DNA tests. Or caving and going back to my original system of one, big, happy mess all piled into one family tree.

In that moment of decision, I opted for the safest route: for each of our DNA tests, the link winner became the tree with the longest roots, since that was most likely to generate matches. In both my case and my husband's, that became the maternal line. Which is why I say this became my patrilineal problem: neither my paternal line nor my husband's is linked to anything connected to our DNA test results. Since Ancestry does most of the genetic genealogy heavy lifting for its customers by algorithms that ferret out matches from their massive database of shared family trees, that means leaving each of our slates half blank—on the very side that needs the most help.

What an error that becomes! For those DNA Circles, much of that matching comes from what's listed in each subscriber's linked tree. And it's our maternal lines for which we have the easiest time finding documentation. It's both our paternal sides—especially that father's-father's-father's quest to find the origin of my husband's Stevens surname and my (possible) Puchalski side—that could use the help! And yet, if I linked solely to those paternal trees, I wouldn't get the many matches we've already witnessed. It's as if my only option is to go back and re-tool my system to fit Ancestry's system demands. An ugly picture.

I now begin to understand why so many Ancestry subscribers seem to have multiple family trees, all with essentially the same data, but sporting slightly different titles: the Smith tree, versus the Smith-Jones tree, versus the Jones tree.

Silly me; I used to think that was because people just had a hard time making up their mind.

Above: Undated pen and ink sketch prior to 1828, "Study of a Woman with her Head on her Hand," by English artist Richard Parkes Bonington; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

What's So Interesting?

It's the busy part of the month right now for me—even more so, once I got the brainy idea to schedule my monthly Beginners' Genealogy workshops for the third Saturday of each month to handily follow our third Thursday Society meetings, for which I'm responsible for arranging program content. Let's just say the third week of any month will not have schedule gaps for anything beside genealogy.

Well...maybe coffee. There is always time for coffee...

As if I didn't have enough to do, I got the brainy idea to add yet another project to the genealogical society plate: Special Interest Groups. After all, having come back from an exhilarating family history research trip to Ireland over a year ago, I couldn't just keep all those resources and info to myself. I wanted a way to share what I've learned with others who are interested. So we will be launching our Society's Special Interest Group on Ireland on Saint Patrick's Day, which—conveniently—also decided to fall on the third Thursday of the month.

Launching a Special Interest Group program begins to prompt other such ideas. If setting up a group for people researching their Irish roots, what about those researching their German roots? Or Italian? Or Japanese? Or Native American? Given a Society of any decent size—our membership hovers around one hundred—the possibilities could be almost endless.

The key is: we all want to know where we came from. We want a sense of history—our history. Though we may never be able to go back to the places from which our ancestors once emigrated, we still want to know what life was like there, what customs filled our ancestors' days, how they lived, what they looked like, who was most important to them. I don't know why we want to know this—we just do.

It may be different for other genealogical societies. Maybe those of us in the west and southwest have more members pursuing Mexican or Filipino roots than, say, our counterparts in New England. But it's hard to say. After all, one unexpected pairing of meeting place and Special Interest Group is the southern California genealogical society interested in French Canadian ancestry—go figure.

How do we, as genealogical societies, determine which special niche would most interest our members? Sometimes, it takes the direct route: ask your membership. But it also is a two-way street. While many may be interested in joining a group, if no one is interested in facilitating the group, it may never even get launched in the first place.

If we take the position that our societies are ever evolving, we add another variable into the equation. At our local society meeting this week, a visitor came up to me, inquiring about beginning her quest to find her Hungarian roots. I know absolutely nothing about that region, nor could I think of one member who did. But given the training to begin her own research, this woman—who is a native speaker of the language—could one day find herself offering a valuable service to others asking the very questions she asked of me this week. As our members' knowledge of general genealogical research principles expands, they become better equipped to delve into these specialized niches—and eventually mentor others who wish to learn.

While that compelling wish to learn more about our ancestors and where they came from is something we may not fully be able to explain, there is no denying it is there. How we, as genealogical societies, facilitate that learning process that equips our members to pursue their personal roots may become a function of how we, in turn, have facilitated the learning process among those in our "learning community" in general.

For me, as a student of the "game" of how organizations accommodate the development of their members, perhaps the most interesting aspect of it all is to see what worked best for each society, based on the composition of each group's specific membership. What works for one group may not work for others—but no matter what the result in one group, we can all learn from each others' experience and craft better co-operatives among our members to suit each individual groups' needs.

Above: "Winter in Enkhuisen at the Corner of Dijk and Sint Jansstraat," 1892 oil on canvas by Dutch artist Willem Koekkoek; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Twelve is for Tentative

What is it with people who tentatively stick their toe in the pool, rather than jumping in and getting it all over with in one splash? When it comes to fishing in the Y-DNA gene pool, I think I've found the ones who can't seem to get past the toe-dipping stage: the ones who purchase the 12 marker Y-DNA test.

Admittedly, there is that slight matter of cost. I don't even remember what the price was, back when I had my husband and my brother tested. I'm sure it's more expensive now to do much more than that entry-level step. Taking a look at the main supplier of Y-DNA tests now, the Family Tree DNA company, I couldn't even find the current asking price for the 12 marker test.

They have to be selling it, though. Just yesterday I got yet another email announcement, breathlessly reporting that my husband had one more match on his Y-DNA results. Somebody has to be buying this stuff.

I'm glad FTDNA is currently steering customers clear of this entry level test. When I checked their website for current pricing, I noticed the first test in the Y-DNA product line was for the 37 marker test, along with this comment,
More markers mean more confidence. Our Y-DNA tests check for specific markers on the Y chromosome. 37 markers is a good place to start and can confirm close relationships.

Of course, their sales pitch is to "increase confidence" with even more markers tested, which translates into a cost above the $169 current asking price for the 37 marker test.

So how are people still buying the 12 marker test? In my book, it's virtually useless as a match. Admittedly, if you are a male descendent of the Smith line, and all the men who match you at the 12 level also boast Smith as a surname, well, that's reassuring. As far as things go in the Stevens camp, though, my husband currently has 1,375 matches at the 12 marker level, of whom only two share the same surname. The possibility that the closer of the two matches—an exact match—shares a common ancestor with my husband approaches we approach a family tree reaching back twenty four generations.

Granted, the 12 marker test has its place. Just last night, I was talking with a genealogist who was working on a case, muddling through paternity issues. Sure enough, one of the two men tested—at that measly 12 level—had a full house of matches sporting the same surname, while the other one with the questionable link to the same father, came up empty-handed. I suppose 12 can tell you that. If you're lucky. And apparently, the men in my life aren't that kind of lucky.

Ruling out wasn't the mode I had in mind when I started this genetic genealogy experiment. I wanted to know who we were related to. And to do that, you simply have to stand up and decide to jump in—feet first, wholeheartedly. Who knows whether any of those 1,375 matches on my husband's 12 marker list would turn out to be solid matches, if they hadn't been so tentative and had made a bigger splash with their testing strategy. Somehow, that tentative gesture with the mere 12 markers barely gets the door open—and yet concurrently opens the floodgates to get us inundated with essentially useless information.

If Family Tree DNA is really committed to upping their game to set 37 markers as their entry level for Y-DNA testing, they certainly have my enthusiastic support.

Above: "Still Life With Robin's Nest," 1863 oil on canvas by American artist, Fidelia Bridges; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Putting Our Genealogical Skills
to Other Uses

Every once in a while, I do break away from my computer and venture out into the real world. Yesterday, the occasion was a lunch meeting with a friend who had recently recuperated from surgery.

Since we both are genealogy fanatics, it was no surprise that the conversation eventually drifted toward our Topic of Prime Interest. Now that she was past the pain-medicated, bed-ridden stage, my friend wanted to pick up on some projects she had set aside—as would be expected—but she also had a new one in mind.

This new project was unlike any genealogical research you'd expect to do in the usual pursuit of family history secrets. My friend wants to put her search skills to use to find a former neighbor she fondly remembers from her childhood.

She had already made some headway in this fresh pursuit, mainly thanks to our local library's extensive collection of city directories. It certainly helps to know both the name and the address of the person whom you're seeking, and even though this was a memory dredged up from the blur of childhood, there are just some things we don't forget.

As sometimes happens when we run into these special people who are so kind to children, this woman my friend was seeking apparently ended up having no children of her own. She likely displaced this disappointment with ideas on how she could be a blessing to other people's children. That is exactly what made this woman stand out in my friend's life, so many decades later.

Now, knowledgeable about how to put these genealogical research skills to work, my friend is applying what she knows about how to search to this very different type of family history project. Maybe, just maybe, she can find a living relative and send her thanks by proxy.

My friend's idea got me to thinking about my own collection of people from my childhood about whom I've always wondered. Whatever became of them? I can find out, you know. We all can. If we've learned how to ferret out the details on our missing great-great-grandparents, we can apply those same skills to find almost anyone.

I think about the German immigrant widow who lived down the block from our family in my youngest years. I never saw her, other than when she was walking home from the grocery store, wheeled basket towed behind her. I still can clearly see her faded dress, her black old-lady shoes and the dark seam of her stockings—still carefully straightened—at the back of her swollen legs.

I always wondered who she was—especially since neither of my parents ever engaged her in conversation, nor did I see anyone else in the neighborhood interact with her. Hers was the oldest house on the block—an old style building, dark in the recesses of overgrown trees and bushes—while everyone else's house was of the cookie-cutter vintage so prevalent in early post-war suburbia. It was as if the world decided to go on without her, but she just held her turf despite such notions of "progress."

It occurred to me, in yesterday's conversation, that though I've "always wondered" about her, now—if I want to—I can find out who she was. I have the skills and the resources, and I know how to use them. I have no idea what good it might be to find out, but it will somehow speak to that insatiable childhood curiosity that has apparently never left me.

I don't doubt that others may share that call of the "always wondered" but as-yet-unsolved tiny mysteries of our childhood. There are many such quests: wishes to reconnect with elementary school teachers to tell them a long-overdue thank you for their patience with our impossible childish selves. Regrets that we never went back home to tell someone the rest of the story—the story they hoped they would hear—of how our lives turned out. Those missed chances to find out whatever happened when we went one way and our childhood friends went the other way.

Though we may share such calls from a melancholy past, what's different now is that we have the tools and the skills to find out the answers for ourselves—and then, just maybe, to do something about what we discover.

Above: "Moonrise," 1884 oil on canvas by Polish artist, Stanisław Masłowski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Compounding Cousin Connections

What a difference an email can make. When you factor in two, the effect can get exponential.

You may be aware of how easily I can become discouraged when other bloggers brag about their "cousin bait." I am easily provoked to sniveling in such cases. Here I am, blogging my heart out—and everyone else gets all the cool emails.

Well, cancel my right to complain. In this lull between family stories—actually, I have no idea which direction to take us next—came two very welcome messages. Both of them turn out to yield cousin connections. One came from a DNA test result at The other came out of the blue, thanks to a blog post from last September, following my trip to Florida, home of my McClellan roots.

It may seem like a no-brainer to assume that there would be cousin connections galore for those jumping on the genetic genealogy bandwagon. Not so, as I've discovered after more than a year fishing in the gene pool at Family Tree DNA. Despite having over a thousand matches there, it's been slow going, tediously piecing together groups of potential cousins with similar matches, trying to determine which side of the family claims each connection.

Ancestry DNA, however, may have found the key to super-charging that process: an already well-established family-tree-savvy network of users. And the algorithms to ferret out those matches automatically, complete with diagrams to help make the connections.

Even so, that doesn't guarantee that participants always produce perfectly documented trees—or, in some cases, any tree at all. Nor does it compel those participants to answer messages promptly.

Despite the lack of any posted family tree, I took my chances with one particular enigmatically coded user name which I thought just might have incorporated a surname that, handily, also belongs in my own family tree. The quick reply confirmed not only one match—at the level of third cousin, fairly close for me—but two additional DNA matches from that person's family.

While that alone is cause for genealogical ecstasy, there's been more in store for me this week. An unsolicited email arrived, the day before yesterday, from someone who had stumbled upon a blog post on a mutual relative. Only thing is—neither this writer nor I previously knew each other. A quick volley to compare family notes resulted in the conclusion that we are third cousins. We look forward to sharing notes and collaborating on our family stories.

Cousin bait: besides that unparalleled opportunity to share our micro-history and stories with that wider circle of as-yet-unknown family, isn't this what geneablogging is supposed to be all about?

Above: "The Saucer of Milk," watercolor by English painter Helen Allingham; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Researching the Other Down Under

It's the "milling about" stage for mulling over potential next topics for blogging fodder. Gone is the saga of John Syme Hogue, whose life's events kept me amazed at every turn. Now what?

Lacking a sufficient next story, it's time to go back and do some spring cleaning on unfinished research. Since I've neglected work on those paternal lines—mine and my husband's—perhaps this is just the time to do penance.

I recall one detail I uncovered in my husband's line—it's been a couple years ago, now, but who's counting?—mentioning that his second great grandmother, Johanna Falvey Kelly, had a sister who had emigrated from their home in County Kerry, Ireland, to somewhere in New Zealand.

The key to that couple years of no progress is "somewhere." New Zealand may look like a small country; superimposed upon the east coast of the United States, however, it stretches from New York to the northern portions of the state of Florida. And somewhere in that stretch of land, there was once one single, solitary Falvey relative of my husband's second great grandmother.

Reading up on it all, quite a while back, I did discover that there were several Falveys settled in particular regions in the south island of New Zealand. Though a Falvey sister leaving County Kerry for this other British colony "Down Under" wouldn't likely have been categorized under her maiden name—assuming she had married, at some point—at least I could hope that she traveled in the company of others. Maybe, just maybe, some of those others with her might have been Falveys, as well.

So, how does one approach doing genealogical research, long distance, regarding someone settling in New Zealand? While I knew of some resources available in the place most people think of when they hear the phrase, "Down Under," I didn't know much about New Zealand's genealogical resources at all. I had to get updated on what is available online.

Fortunately, the usual resources will provide ample material to brief me on this new research territory. provides an overview on "Getting Started.", thankfully, has amassed a decent data collection of New Zealand resources. Good old Rootsweb provides an extensive list of links, as does Cyndi's List (would you have expected otherwise?). And from a distinctive, local point of view, New Zealand History provides its own clickable list of resources.

All that to get me up to speed on New Zealand genealogical research, just so I can find the unidentified sister of my husband's second great grandmother? This task might be assuming the hopeless proportions of a needle-in-haystack quest. True. It might have to suffice me to allow this one to putter along in the background as more productive goals are achieved for blogging fodder. But chalk this one up to list building for my own research purposes. At least now I have a few go-to places to provide the background knowledge to power me through such a search.

Above: "Watercolour of Ellen Willmott's Garden," by English landscape painter Alfred William Parsons; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Stalking Surnames

Wendy mentioned something the other day that got me thinking. Worse, it spirited me away down one of those rabbit trails I just can't seem to resist. In discussing those seemingly close connections to presidential ancestors—and those misleading names that turned out to be ancestors merely named after those famous men—Wendy's comment was
I also have a couple Zachary Taylors, and the home of the Zachary Taylor was in the neighborhood. There were a lot of men by this name in the same time period, so I can't be sure if my family was rubbing elbows with the future president or not.

Lest you jump to the conclusion that the likely answer was "or not," let's take a look at some possibilities. When Wendy mentioned Zach Taylor, my mind immediately flew to a Zach Taylor I knew in my own family tree. Of course, that was pushing the limit, as my Zach Taylor was actually a Zacharias—not to mention, of a totally different time frame than the real president, Zachary Taylor, 1784 - 1850.

The Taylor link—despite any warning alarms emerging from the surname being such a common one—was too tantalizing for me, and I had to go fishing for Zachary Taylor sightings in a few family trees.

My first stop was to see just who the real Zachary Taylor claimed as his parentage. A quick and dirty check on Wikipedia—and everyone knows "how unreliable Wikipedia can be"—showed his parents to be Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother.

Wait. Strother? I've seen that name before, somewhere...

I pulled up the Strothers in my own family tree. Remember, when talking about my seventh great grandparents in common with John Syme Hogue during that recent series on his life, that umpteenth great grandmother Margaret Watts married someone by the name of Strother. Could there be a connection?

No such luck. Not even on account of the Dabney, though I have that surname tucked somewhere in my family tree, as well. However, I have no Sarah Dabney Strother listed. But I shouldn't have been surprised. This little bunny trail was replicating an methodology almost as ill-advised as finding a D.A.R. Patriot and then trying to match your own line to that man's family. It seldom is an exercise that works.

Not to be deterred by reason, I tried another approach. I Googled the name, "Sarah Dabney Strother." Surely, there was a Strother in there somewhere for me!

Yes! It was to the rescue, with a page outlining their genealogical records for Sarah Dabney Strother, wife of Richard Taylor and mother of the president, Zachary Taylor. The page listed Sarah's parents—neither of which, for whatever reason, rang a bell with me—so I clicked through to see if perhaps her parents' page would reveal any siblings whose names better matched my own tree.

How short-sighted I was. Focused so much on my own matrilineal line, I had been concentrating, in my own work, on the wife of my Strother—Margaret Watts—and had totally lost track of her husband's name. It was William. And—oh, duh!—so was Sarah Dabney Strother's father's name.

Yes, as often happened back in those days, Sarah's father—at least, if we can rely on Ancestry's thumbnail sketch of this family tree—had been married twice. It was his second marriage, to Sarah Bailey, that produced daughters Susannah and Sarah—that Sarah, specifically, who became the mother of the future president of the United States, Zachary Taylor.

That marriage, of course, I had yet to discover on my own. All I had known about was William Strother's first marriage—the one to Margaret Watts which produced the five daughters I had known about, including my matrilineal ancestor, Jane Strother Lewis, as well as Jane's sisters Margaret (from whom John Syme Hogue descended) and Agatha (from whom came my near-miss relationship with President James Madison).

Now, with his second wife, my seventh great grandfather evidently became the progenitor of a president, after all—President Zachary Taylor, who was born in Virginia in 1784, died while in office in Washington, D.C., in 1850 and was eventually buried in the Taylor family plot in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, Wendy, who knows? Even with a surname as common as Taylor—and even with as many Zacharys as you mentioned being "in the neighborhood"—perhaps you stand a chance to claim a president in your lineage, too. And if so, I guess that makes the two of us cousins, as well. 

Above: Engraved portrait of President Zachary Taylor by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Emerging Bright Line of Relationship

DNA testing for genealogical purposes may seem new, but it is not satisfied to rest on its still-short-lived status quo laurels. Now that I've been exploring the options at both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry DNA, I'm realizing how much the latter company is equipped to facilitate reaching the bottom line for family history buffs. With their built-in family tree building program already well in place, adding the DNA testing results becomes a marriage made in heaven.

Not to say that there's no work left to be done after the DNA test is submitted. This is still far from a point and shoot operation. There are contacts to be made, documentation to be compared, possible adjustments to be made in some lines, as well. But when Ancestry basically gives you not only the names of matches and estimated level of relationship, but outlines each party's respective lines of descent, it leaves customers with the feeling that it's all over but the shouting. What's to say in that introductory letter but, "Hi, I guess we're cousins."

And so, now that I have results in for DNA tests at Ancestry for both myself and my husband, I end up looking over these readouts—and the follow-up DNA Circles and "New Ancestor Discoveries"—and find myself nodding my head while softly murmuring, "Yep...yep." It's almost as if there's nothing more to be done.

Yet you know there is. So I add another layer of number-tracking to my twice-monthly statistical report. And feel as if the paper chase has been somehow supercharged.

Take my husband's maternal tree, for instance. With my current goal of documenting the connection with two more D.A.R. Patriots for a supplemental application for my daughter plus paving the way for both my sisters-in-law to apply for their own membership, I've been focusing my efforts on that tree. It turns out I've kept up the same pace as in the last two weeks, when I added 190 names to that tree; this time, I've added another 189. That tree now has 3,049 individuals listed, including the Jackson and Ijams lines leading back to those D.A.R. Patriots.

Add to that the 17 matches received at Family Tree DNA—bringing the overall matches for my husband there to 608, a number representing lines from all sides of his family, but who knows which matches belong to which lines—and a much more modest 87 at Ancestry DNA, a mere increase of one match from last time. Still, that measly 87 at Ancestry represents several who emerged as part of a DNA Circle devoted to Nancy Ann Jackson, daughter of John Jay Jackson and Sarah Ijams, the very people whose lines lead to those D.A.R. Patriots. As messy as that family unit has been for my research, with Sarah dying young at a time when documentation wasn't as easily available, that is a reassuring indicator.

On my side of the equation, despite the impetus of wanting to find the connection to my mystery cousin still as strong as it was when we first made the discovery of our mtDNA connection over a year ago, progress has certainly slowed. Still, I added 53 names to my maternal family tree, pumping the overall count to 7,224 documented individuals, and saw 19 additional matches received at my Family Tree DNA account. The fact that I have 1,027 DNA matches there just blows me away—but I still can't seem to find many which will collaborate with me over our paper trails to confirm exactly how those matches line up.

Admittedly, just as I saw for my husband's results at Ancestry DNA, the numbers are much lower, but now stand at 232 matches, up nine from last time. I've reached out to three of those matches and they seem a firm connection. Seeing some of them so neatly lined out by Ancestry reminds me I have lines of descent on collateral connections which need additional work—but once I attend to that task, the documentation bears up the relationships, which is refreshing. Somehow, this DNA testing doesn't seem quite so exhausting, anymore. Of course, when Ancestry shines the bright light on those DNA Circle and relationship chart analyses, the work is practically done for us. All that's left is for us to double check those lines and confirm. Easy peasy.

Although on my side, the "New Ancestor Discoveries" Beta has got me stumped with its suggestion that I have DNA connections with the lines of Meschach Johnson (who?) and Thomas Edmund Dukes, I have much to cheer about when it comes to the DNA Circles for my maternal line.

Especially heartening are the circles for Thomas Firth Rainey and Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro. You may not think those names ring a bell, but for me, that's music to my ears, for they are the couple who were parents of the orphan child who became wife of Thomas Taliaferro Broyles—the woman whose early death between census records left me little with which to trace her heritage, but whom I need to follow because she becomes the missing link in my matrilineal line. I believe these DNA Circle indicators show me I'm on the right track there.

Of course, all that progress on the two maternal lines—mine, and my husband's—contrasts starkly with the lack of progress on either of our paternal lines. I guess that's the way it's going to be for a while. It seems so much easier to go with the flow when discoveries are easily being made on the other two lines. There will be a time to revisit those lines, but with all that's popping up on the DNA trail right now for both maternal lines, that time for the dads will have to wait for another day.

Above: "Kosovo Peonies," 1913 painting by Serbian impressionist Nadežda Petrović; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Don't Unfold the Rose

If there's anything about genealogy that captivates me, it's the stories. I want to know who those ancestors are—not just when they got here, or where they arrived.

There's the stories...and then there's the story about the stories.

Teachers used to put different terms to that. If I were teaching a class, the stories would be called "content." And the story about the stories would be termed "process." Process is how you get to the content.

In the recent series I've just completed—the story of John Syme Hogue—it's the process that's captured my attention. The story behind the story. I want to know: what did the family think, the first time they heard the story, when John Syme Hogue, senior, realized what his son had done, or when the younger John's brother Andrew decided to do something to save him.

More than that, I want to know whether anyone in the family knew about John Syme Hogue's story in the next generation. Did any of his children realize what kind of past their dad had hidden in his younger years? Did the story get passed down to the grandchildren like some kind of family legend? Or did it get added to the "skeletons in the closet" that every family has, but no one wants to discuss?

Though I've wondered about these things, I haven't been able to figure out a way to find the answers to my questions.


As sometimes happens on a system the size of, the other day, I ran across another family tree containing the very same John Syme Hogue I've been telling you about. Actually, there were several—if you are a subscriber at, you can look that up for yourself—but so often, such trees are full of careless errors and mis-attributed documentation that I often pass up on using those resources.

This tree, however, was different. Equipped with ample documentation as well as photographs, the tree had both a length and a breadth that betrayed someone more than the casual dabbler behind the collection. As I took a look around this person's handiwork, I realized this was not only someone serious about family history research, but likely someone who was closely related to the very line I am pursuing.

Because makes it easy for subscribers to connect with each other, I decided to send this researcher a message. To see what would happen.

That was when the moment of doubt washed over me. If I write, what do I say? Do I presume this person knows all about the family story? Or would revealing that ruin someone's day?

This was the dilemma: saying too much could be offensive, while saying too little could render my note too easily ignored.

In the end, opting for that dull, boring, bland middle of the road, I sent the message off. And waited.

It's in the waiting that minutes stretch into centuries. I can't abide that type of time warp. I want an answer now—no, strike that, I want an answer yesterday. But one just can't hurry such a thing.

I think back to those sermons preached—usually in a church service geared toward young people—when the advice is to not rush things. For all those good things anticipated by those whose lives still lie ahead of them, the advice is to just wait. The oft-offered comparison is to recall the pristine loveliness of a rose unfolding. There is no way to rush that process. To force the rose to open more quickly is to ruin an emerging work of art.

Maybe this distant cousin sought will answer. Maybe not. Though I want an answer yesterday—no, I want instant connection with not only a relative but a fellow researching confidante—that is not always possible. These things cannot be rushed.

While the story of John Syme Hogue may be over—at least, here on this blog—that's not necessarily the case with the story behind the story. There are so many more connections to be made. After all, this story needs to be told. And so does the story behind the story. But neither the content nor the process does well when we force the rose to unfold before its time.

Above: "Rose Branch with Beetle and Bee," 1741 composition by Netherlands still life painter Rachel Ruysch; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Close Encounters of a Presidential Kind

Curious about your possible relationship to, say, Abraham Lincoln? Or George Washington? How about any president?

If you have ancestors romping around in the far reaches of your family tree—you know, those wispy twigs spiraling back to the early 1700s or so—you may be in a position to claim a connection to political greatness. Or, at least, almost make the claim.

That's what I discovered while romping around my matrilineal line—that branch that caused me to stumble down the rabbit trail of the John Syme Hogue story. Remember Margaret Watts, my seventh great grandmother? You know: the one who married William Strother back in colonial Virginia, around 1718.

Not only did William and Margaret Strother have their daughter Jane, from whom I descend, and their daughter Margaret, from whom John Syme Hogue descended, but they also had four other daughters. At least, that's as many as I've found, so far.

One of those daughters was named Agatha. And she happened to marry a man by the name of John Madison. Among their many children was a son whom they named James.

James Madison? Hmmm...

Don't get your hopes up, yet. I discovered a few things about this James Madison—like his date of death in 1812. Too soon to be the right James Madison, whose second term of office as President of the United States didn't conclude until 1817.

But this James Madison had a son, whom he also named James. This is beginning to look promising—after all, President James Madison was son of another man named James—until we realize that the dates for this son aren't quite right, either. These hopes of a presidential connection are fading fast.

But let's not give up on this rabbit trail too soon. This James Madison was a president—just not the kind of president we might have had in mind.

Our James Madison, son of John and Agatha, was born August 27, 1749. Educated at his home in Virginia in his younger years, he completed his preliminary education at a private school in Maryland, after which he attended college. Though he was afterwards admitted to the bar, he never practiced law. Instead, after serving as an instructor at his college for a while, he traveled to England, where he was ordained a priest of the Church of England.

Returning to his native land, he arrived in colonial Virginia just as the hostilities broke out in 1776.

By the next year, through a curious turn of events, the head of the college where James Madison had been teaching—a loyalist who had previously had Madison removed from his duties—no longer held his position. It was at that point that James Madison was appointed the eighth president of the College of William and Mary, the first to hold that position after the colony's separation from England. He continued to serve in that position for thirty five years, until his death in 1812.

Consecrated as a bishop in 1790, he from that point concurrently served over the Diocese of Virginia and as president of the college.

As it turns out, it was his cousin—also named James Madison—to whom the honors of the title of United States President belong. While that James Madison had a father named James, there is nothing about the details that could convincingly match the two pairs—our James Madison and his son James with James Madison, son of Ambrose, and his son, James the President.

Oh, well, since it was Agatha Strothers Madison who was related to my line, not her Madison husband himself, I guess I've witnessed another genealogical brush with greatness—a near miss, once again.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Matrilineal Malaise

Could it be that genealogists get Spring Fever, too?

A serious dose of sunshine and temperatures nudging the mercury above seventy may just have been what's gotten to me. Who can sit indoors at a computer when the hummingbirds are back at the feeder, and through the open window, you can even hear frogs croaking from across the field?

That may be painting the scene too generously. I'm afraid what's really going on is that I've burned out after returning from that trek down the rabbit hole of John Syme Hogue's life story. I did, after all, stumble upon that one, thanks to work on my matrilineal line.

Ah, yes: the matrilineal pursuit for the nexus with my mystery cousin. Let me check where I last left off: it was owing to the line of my seventh great grandmother, Margaret Watts, who, sometime in 1720 became the wife of William Strother of King George County in colonial Virginia.

What I should have been doing was diligently pursuing the lines of the ladies in each ancestral mother's family. But how could I omit the gents? Curiosity over the family stories I'd be missing with that tactic got the best of me. And now look at me: exhausted from falling prey in yet another rabbit trail chase.

But then I remind myself of the math behind such a pursuit. If the numbers double with each succeeding generation we research—from two parents to four grandparents to eight greats, and so forth—we are talking about a geometric progression of explosive proportions by the time we get back to the ninth generation before me. Those sorts of numbers leave me fervently hoping the son to daughter ratio does not fall within the statistically-likely fifty-fifty split.

On the other hand, the results—if accomplished—would be of monumental proportions. Think of it: the task would yield a list of all the female descendants of one woman—Margaret Watts Strother—who otherwise likely died in obscurity. Talk about being the biographer of insignificant lives.

Talk, also, about a useful resource—amply cross-checked, as wasn't as feasible during the era of those hundred-year-old published family genealogies of yore, with a wide variety of records.

You may have noticed that I am giving myself a pep talk here. You may also have thought what has just occurred may be along the lines of falling off the genealogy band wagon. Or more dangerous, falling off the horse. In which case, the only answer is to pick one's self up, dust off, and get back on that hobby horse—which, come this weekend's bi-monthly statistical report, will hopefully see me galloping off at full speed once again.

Above: Detail of Morris Dancers  from painting, circa 1620, "The Thames at Richmond, With the Old Royal Palace" by unknown artist in the Flemish style; courtesy The Fitzwilliam Museum via Wikipedia; in the public domain. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Off the Shelf:
How the Scots Invented
the Modern World

"Yeah, sure," you're thinking: that's some hyperbole.

Just wait til you get to the subtitle: "The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It."

Perhaps Arthur L. Herman, the history professor responsible for entitling the book with such an ambitious claim, was influenced by yet another big-thinking title—Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Then again, perhaps he has a point. He has enough intellectual fire power to hit his target. His resume boasts positions at George Mason University, Georgetown, and the Catholic University of America, and he now serves as senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But it was while he was coordinator of the Smithsonian's Western Heritage Program when he noticed, in a class topic on intellectual life in eighteenth century Edinburgh, how many prominent people who had had a significant impact on modern times had come from such a specific geographic location: Scotland.

One would have thought, considering such an epic title and eminently-qualified author, that I would have taken my cue from the book's positioning as a New York Times best seller (not to mention its number five position, for three weeks, on the Washington Post's list and its number one slot up in Canada at The Globe and Mail) and pulled it off my bookshelf to actually read it much sooner than I did. After all, the hardcover came out in 2001.

I didn't discover this book back then, though. It made its way to me through a much more convoluted and unorthodox approach. It was during my homeschooling years when, in a home-educating parents' collective, we hosted an itinerant economist who set as his task the discipling of high school debaters through his coaching blend of politics, history, and current events analysis. Among the many books in tow when he came to visit was this volume. The minute I saw the title, I knew I had to have it.

And then, in the swirl of daily obligations, it soon was forgotten.

It was a bad dream that awoke me the other morning which called the book back to mind. All I can remember of the dream is that I and my companions were trapped inside a humble shack on a remote mountainside—captured by those ubiquitous bad-dream bad guys—and told that the food inside the cabin was all we had to eat. I awoke with a start, not because of the threat of our captivity, but because I realized just where that cabin was: we were in Scotland.

I don't know about you, but having nothing to eat but what the Scottish heritage has to offer seemed almost a fate worse than death. When it comes to fare like haggis, no Madison Avenue spin—or French gastronomical soft-pedaling of the ingredients as "not immediately appealing"—can convince me that such a recipe can result in savory and delectable dining.

That was what woke me up. It also got me thinking: what is it about the Scottish people, anyhow? If nothing else, they have learned to be survivors. Since their heritage figures prominently in my own maternal roots, I owe myself the favor of learning more about this people group, even if it is nearly fifteen years after my good intentions first led me to purchase the book.

In defense of the title, the author had explained, "This is the story of how the Scots created the basic ideals of modernity" and went on to observe,
The point of this book is that being Scottish is more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it.

So the author sets out on his exploratory wanderings through his hypothesis, beginning with the Big Bang of the Scottish Reformation, pulling in strands of the story from the history of the land's politics, education, economics, even nutrition—vindicating me with the observation concerning its cuisine, "it was not a meal anyone sat down to with relish"—in a sweeping view of history both in and imported from Scotland.

The text promises to guide the reader through such considerations as the impact of the immigrating Ulster Scots, their arrival and influence in the nascent New World, the heritage of the key players in colonial America up through the Revolution. I see the context from which some of my Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee forebears emerged and begin to think of how this influence comes to play on my own personal family history.

For anyone fascinated by the evolution of history and cultures—especially those equipped to follow the threads of such an interwoven story line—the book promises to introduce some concepts that might otherwise have never been considered, especially among those of us researching our Scottish roots.

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