Friday, March 31, 2017

My Dream App
for Genealogy Conferences

So, it's the season for genealogy conferences. I go, I learn, I have a blast getting to meet other genealogy enthusiasts. But there's just one thing I'm missing—one problem that irks me: out of all those thousands of fellow conference attendees, sure at least one of them shares a distant cousin with me.

But how to find that someone...

I've long pondered that quandary. You may have remembered—since my style is not to print up a custom T-shirt listing family surnames—I toyed with the possibility of using QR codes on business cards to invite people to scan my list of surnames.

With all the promotional material now coming out on various national, state and regional genealogical events, I think I've found the prototype for my dream cousin-finding conference app. It's the Ontario Genealogical Society's Wall of Ancestors, recently launched in preparation for the OGS conference coming in mid-June.

I say prototype, because while it offers the very utility I envision for use in large genealogical gatherings, I see a possible pitfall in the way OGS has set up their program. Before we get to that, though, let's take a look at what the OGS Wall of Ancestors offers.

Basically, it's a way for conference attendees—and, presumably, even OGS members who won't be able to attend the event—to list their surnames. It provides a place for people to enter their ancestors' given name, family name, the ancestor's dates of birth and death, and location. There is also a column in which to enter a tick mark indicating the submitter's intention to be at the conference—presumably so distant cousins may meet, face to face.

But it's much more than just a surname list. The list is there for a purpose: for participants to find others attending the conference who are researching the same family lines. So, naturally, the Wall also asks each submitter to provide his or her own name. This is an obvious request—else how would one cousin be able to reach out and connect with the other? Yet the way the conference organizers set up this part of the program has its down side. It asks not only for submitter's name, but provides a column in which that person must enter a personal email address.

Now, including an email address seems like a reasonable step. After all, how else would Cousin A find Cousin B in the sea of faces swarming through the convention center? This does provide an easy way to connect two people who, though related, are heretofore nothing more than total strangers.

Take a moment to think about that little detail. In this age of spam, violations of personal privacy, and unscrupulous shadowy figures lurking in the digital ether, that doesn't sound like the safest option. Yes, the genealogical community is a wonderful, caring and supporting network of people. However, it is not just genealogical contacts who are viewing that email address. Anyone on the Internet who finds their way to the OGS website may stumble upon this freely-accessible list of email addresses. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable with that—nor might several others who otherwise would be interested in participating in this wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow researchers.

There is likely a reason why genealogical forums of the past—and even's current message boards—facilitated members getting in touch with each other without divulging the actual email address of the contact person. Initial messages were blind copied to recipients. It was not until the contact was made—and the trustworthiness of the contact person vetted—that members could voluntarily, exercising their own discretion, offer their personal email address.

I certainly hope that someday my favorite conference venues will offer a similar app to allow attendees to make cousin connections with others at the same event. That's always been my dream for well-attended events like genealogy conferences and institutes. But that dream app also includes a healthy respect for the privacy of each participant, allowing the control for such details as contact information to rest in the hands of the attendee, not the organization running the conference.

Granted, I'm by no means a computer guru. There may be extenuating circumstances that would make such a provision prohibitively expensive for societies to offer. But when I see how privacy is appropriately guarded in surname lists offered on some societies' websites, it seems that such programming possibility could be adapted for conferences without much difficulty or expense.

While the tech angle seems possible, spreading the vision may be more of a challenge. I'm so glad to see OGS seizing the opportunity to convert such a dream into reality—it gives other societies an example to emulate. It would certainly be a valuable step for other societies to take in benefiting those attending their events.

If we can view conferences as not only a place where societies facilitate learning experiences, but networking opportunities as well, we allow them to expand their usefulness to their members and potential members—safely—in the process.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Season for Learning

I've heard it said that people simply are no longer interested in attending genealogy conferences. There are so many other learning opportunities which they can avail themselves of, they say, that there isn't much reason to take all the time and expense to travel to a distant conference venue.

True. But then, why plan on taking any vacation trips at all? After all, hotels, restaurant meals (not to mention expensive conference banquets), airfare or gasoline prices add up to some prohibitive sticker shock—no matter what the reason for your travels. But no one can argue against the benefits of a chance to get away for a while.

After the NGS conference in Fort Lauderdale last year—and all the comments about perceived attendance drops—in-person registration numbers are also doubtless on organizers' minds. There's something reinforcing about knowing that people just like me like to do the activity I'm about to participate in. Dwindling crowds can instigate a trend of more dwindling numbers, just on their own.

Yet, I still find value in attending conferences. Mostly, the reasons center around learning, of course—after all, what is the virtue of a conference, if not to have the collective resources to assemble a great lineup of experts? But attending a conference in person yields genealogists much more than the learning opportunities.

For those having more questions about a specific subject than can adequately be addressed from the audience at the end of a one-hour session, there is often the opportunity to catch a few moments to discuss details with a particular speaker. When I was planning our family's research trip to Ireland a few years ago, having the chance to sit down and chat with DNA Day keynoter Maurice Gleeson was an invaluable opportunity I'd never have had, if I had chosen to save the big bucks and merely watch the live streamed session from the comfort of home.

For those wanting to be on top of the latest offerings, a robust exhibit hall affords conference-goers one-stop shopping, whether for low-tech books or high-tech gadgets. Since my go-to conference of choice, the Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree, happens to be held close to my brother's home, one year I was able to persuade him to stop in at the exhibit hall and take a DNA test right there on the spur of the moment. Tell me that isn't easier than waiting two weeks for the test kit order to arrive at my house, then taking the six hour drive to personally deliver the kit to my brother's home to insure he'd actually do the test correctly and return the kit to the lab.

But the highlight, for me, of breaking the couch-potato comfort-of-home habit is to get out and actually meet people in real life, rather than satisfy myself with videos of strangers. These are not strangers; these are people who are obsessed with the very pursuits that intrigue me—the discoveries of family history research—and are not going to slink away the moment I launch into rapturous ecstasies while explaining the blow-by-blow on my latest research coup. If we are going to be out and about with any people at all, wouldn't fellow genealogy enthusiasts be the best ones with whom to spend quality time?

Admittedly, my conference of choice—the SCGS Jamboree I mentioned yesterday—is on the far west side of a fairly wide continent. Maybe you like conferences, but aren't inclined to like them enough to travel that far.

Relax. There may be a genealogy conference that comes closer to you. Perhaps your chance for a season of learning could hinge on the annual offerings of the National Genealogical Society or the Federation of Genealogical Societies, both of which host conferences in different locations each year. This May, the NGS will hold their event in Raleigh, North Carolina. The FGS follows up with their August event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Just as our Jamboree is organized by a California entity, your state genealogical society may also host its own conference, giving you yet another opportunity to learn from some excellent speakers in this field. One glance at's calendar gives you an idea of meetings from several U.S. locations, as well as Canadian, Irish and even Australian societies.

Whether your locality's season for learning comes with the spring, or stretches into the summer or lingers into the fall, I hope you avail yourself of some invigorating in-person learning experiences at a conference near you.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thinking About Summertime

Yes, I know spring has barely begun, but I have my mind on summer. Well, at least a California summer.

Here in California, by the time June arrives, we have long forgotten the cool breezes of March's spring. We are on to summer. And a summery June is the perfect time for my annual trek down south to take in yet another SCGS Genealogy Jamboree.

This year, the Southern California Genealogical Society is hosting their annual extravaganza on June 9 through 11 at their usual location in Burbank. What always clinches the deal for me, though, is the previous day's feature: their DNA day, this year dubbed Genetic Genealogy 2017: Diving into DNA.

As you can tell from their list of speakers—just for the one-day Genetic Genealogy session on June 8—the conference assembles a wide variety of experts in the field. Better yet, extended workshops are offered for the following morning for those who have already begun their pursuit of genetic genealogy research insights and want more in-depth training.

Jamboree is not just about genetic genealogy, though—as much as some of us would be happy to focus on that one discipline—but offers a wide variety of classes in other specialties. SCGS provides three "Heritage Focus" opportunities this year: the African-American track, the British Isles track, and the Armenian track.

Early bird registration closes on April 22. Yeah, that sounds like a long time from now. But it will be here before you know it. After all, the very first day of April is here this coming Saturday—and that's no April Fool's joke.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the Other Hand . . .

It is a wonderful thing if your genealogy quest branches out to lead you into collectibles territory. History can provide so many inspirations for further research pursuits, and sometimes those pursuits can lead to tangible collections.

There is one caveat in order, should you find yourself stepping full speed into collecting items significant to your family history: collections mean very little, in the long run, if you don't pair that with the generosity of sharing. It would mean very little to the world, for instance, if Gloria Austin—whose collection of carriages I mentioned yesterday—chose to have her priceless historic specimens kept behind closed doors, for her enjoyment alone. By allowing the public to step inside the doors of her museum, she not only shared, but served to inspire an interest in the history of specific details of a bygone era.

I've been reading a library book lately that is targeted to artists. It provides a list of ten cardinal rules for young creatives who want to be successful at their craft. Among those ten rules is one which seems, at first, to be directly opposed to the concept of assembling collectibles: "Open up your cabinet of curiosities."

By this rule, author Austin Kleon speaks to those who see the product of their work—as well as the resources which inspired their work—as something to be kept under wraps until just the right moment or the right person.

Under a subheading for this rule, Kleon's book Show Your Work! proclaims, "Don't be a hoarder."

The author explains,
If you happened to be wealthy and educated and alive in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, it was fashionable to have a Wunderkammern, a "wonder chamber," or a "cabinet of curiosities" in your house—a room filled with rare and remarkable objects that served as a kind of external display of your thirst for knowledge of the world.

Basically, it was what, in modern times, became what we call a museum—only back then, it was a collection of wonders reserved for a very limited audience.

Times are different now, of course, and philanthropists and collectors have partnered to make such collections open to the public at nominal charge. Even so, it's not only the rich and famous who have made these collections accessible, but everyday people may find themselves the source of significant collections.

And not all of these collections are of expensive, large objects. As Austin Kleon observed,
We all have our own treasured collections. They can be physical cabinets of curiosities, say, living room bookshelves full of our favorite novels, records, and movies, or they can be more like intangible museums of the heart, our skulls lined with memories of places we've been, people we've met, experiences we've accumulated.... These mental scrapbooks form our tastes and our tastes influence our work.

In asking, "Where do you get your inspiration," Kleon concludes,
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.

Much of the work of a genealogist involves both the examination of others' collections and the assemblage of our own. Certainly our end product—the documentation and explanation of our own family's history—becomes a collection in its own right. And just like Kleon's rule for all creatives—which includes us as genealogists and documentarians of our family histories—we need to consider just how we are going to go about sharing that collection of facts, figures, and wonderful vignettes.

By the time it's all said and done, we need to remember: no hoarding.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Branching Out From History

Researching one's family history can reawaken that sense of wonder inspired by hearing ancestors' stories. I don't know about you, but I can be taken up by the stories unfolding as I research my family's history.

Sometimes, that rapt attention can take me far afield of the strict confines of genealogy. Knowing some streets have been named after particular ancestors in my tree, I find myself wondering how it came to be that a certain street received its name. I know others have fallen in love with house histories, learning more about the succession of people who once lived in the home owned by an ancestor.

This past weekend, I spent some time at a place inspired by someone obsessed with learning the history of one particular accoutrement of a bygone century's daily life. As much as our generation—indeed, the entire past century—has been taken up with automobiles, prior centuries' transportation needs were answered, not by horsepower of a machine, but by the power of horses.

The place I visited was a museum dedicated to exhibiting and explaining the history of the various contraptions devised by man to be pulled by history's workhorses. From humble wagons to the dress chariots of royalty, this particular museum examined the many variations that form of transportation has taken over the centuries.

The location is The Grand Oaks Resort and Museum in Lady Lake, Florida. Within the peaceful spread of the property is the Carriage Museum, featuring the collection of European and American carriages of all types, assembled by Gloria Austin, author and founder of the Equine Heritage Institute.

Though the facility itself is rather plain, the array of carriages housed in the collection is impressive. Each display includes a descriptive plaque to inform visitors on the self-guided tour of the collection. Included, where possible, is the provenance of each carriage—although, admittedly, there are some notable parts of the collection for which no explanation can be provided as to how the piece ended up where Ms. Austin and her advisors discovered it before its acquisition, such as the gala coupe of Franz Josef, former head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Walking through the exhibit, my mind wandered to thoughts of just how enthusiasm for specific topics can branch out into fervent pursuit of related fields. Just as the love of equestrian sports surely inspired the questions that led to such an impressive collection of carriages, how could genealogy inspire related pursuits of collectibles? Each family may have specific interests which could evolve into a passion for an expanded collection.

It's not quite as if we collect people. Of course not. But some families may have members who love music or have old instruments from significant sources. Or that may love needlework or quilting and have a collection that can tell a more detailed story about the family members who once loved them or created them. I often look at the bookshelves in my living room and bedrooms, stacked double, and wonder what someone might glean about the inhabitants in our home, or what they might surmise we are like, based on the titles we own.

Each of the members of our family tree had artifacts that, themselves, could tell tales about the people who owned them. Granted, many of those tales were subsequently lost by too-enthusiastic de-cluttering descendants. But those who have been fortunate to inherit antiques from bygone generations in their family have sometimes also obtained the stories behind those prized pieces.

No matter what collectibles we might find ourselves branching into from the original pursuit of our family tree, those items, themselves, can reveal more about the very people we are trying to research. It is as if our ancestors left the fingerprints of their lives on the items that passed through their hands—and eventually to us. Learning to capture those otherwise invisible records—and learn how to properly interpret them—is an acquired skill that can augment our genealogical pursuits.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Facing the Music

Alright, I admit it: I've been away, playing in Florida instead of being glued to my desk chair, busy chasing those elusive brick wall ancestors. Now, it's time to face the music and see how much I actually accomplished after the customary two weeks' measurement of work. I can tell you already: not that much.

I managed to gain a whopping twenty two verified names on my mother's tree, bringing her total to 9,696. For my mother in law's tree, I didn't do much better: edged up thirty nine to total 10,534.

Of course, if I don't rectify that imbalance, the disparity between those two trees will only grow more obvious, so I'll need to pay more attention to how much time I spend on each family. I find myself working more on my mother in law's family, because they are just so much easier to track. Time to bite that bullet and tackle the harder side of ye olde family tree.

The rate of increase in DNA matches garnered at each company has slowed, now that all the holiday season's sales—and the Christmas gifts they inspired—have been run through the mill. I now have 1,895 matches at Family Tree DNA, an increase of thirty seven matches, and my husband has 1,201, which is up twenty eight. AncestryDNA has likewise seen their numbers settle down. My count there is at 489 matches at fourth cousin or closer, which was an advance of only fifteen in the last two weeks. My husband's count there now stands at 232, an increase of only six.

Things will soon be changing at Family Tree DNA, though this won't necessarily affect our number of matches for autosomal tests. However, since both my husband and I also chose to do the separate mitochondrial DNA test—the one showing the mother's mother's mother's line—we've recently been informed that the company will be doing a significant update early next Tuesday morning. Moving from "Build 14" to "Build 17" (which is the most recent phylogenetic build for the mtDNA test), this update will be the fruition of several months of work.

As the company put it in a recent email sent out to project managers,
To give you an idea of the scope of this project, Build 14 was based on the analysis of 8,216 modern mitogenomes, while Build 17 was designed using 24,275 mtDNA sequences—almost three times as much information! Build 17 increased to 5437 nodes from 3550 in Build 14, an increase of 1887 haplogroups.
This is a significant revision. According to FTDNA, "the update provides a much finer resolution in terms of haplogroup assignment." I'm sure there will be many who are curious to see what that does for their predicted matrilineal haplogroups, once the update is run.

Of course, this also means down time for access to the FTDNA system early next Tuesday morning, from 5:00 to about 8:30 in the Central Daylight (U.S.) time zone, or until the switch is completed. By the time that is all settled, I should be home from my travels and back up to speed with my usual research progress. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being the One

Not all that long ago, one of my elder relatives had completed extensive work on his family tree. He and I did get the chance to have a few discussions about our mutual discoveries before he passed away. I remember, a few years after that point, one of the cousins I've since been visiting this week comment that, sometime when I come to visit, I'd really enjoy getting to look through all his notebooks.

Yes, I would. I'm still looking forward to that visit. Perhaps soon, I'll get that treat. But in the meantime, it reminds me of something.

There are so many of my fellow researchers who have no one in their family with whom to share their enthusiasm about the family's stories. They are consigned to a fate of having to revel in their discoveries alone. While all of us who are smitten with the genealogy bug thrive on being able to share our discoveries with fellow enthusiasts, the more usual burden we face is to be the only one in the family who cares about this personal history.

Such of us as are relegated to this fate realize a corollary to that dilemma: if no one in the family steps up to share our joy in genealogical discoveries, then who will take up our work when we are gone?

I always like to take the positive approach, when consoling others to whom that realization has dawned, encouraging them that someday, someone will step up to pick up where we left off. And there have been some times when I've seen that happen for some families. Just in the nick of time, a great-niece or distant cousin will start exhibiting interest in what we've uncovered, ask a few questions...and then a few more. Pretty soon, that person has moved from apprentice to fellow researcher to inheritor of "the stuff."

It wasn't until this week's visits with family that it occurred to me: perhaps for this cousin's father, I have turned out to be that one—the one in the family who finally steps up and turns out to be the one to carry the research task forward into the next generation. I never thought of myself as anyone else's research successor; I only thought of myself as carrying out my own research calling.

I've felt that sense of relief from some of my fellow researchers when they finally find someone to pick up where they left off—a sense that all that work wouldn't go to waste, wouldn't be forgotten. Yet never did I think of myself as the one who would pick up the baton and run this tag team race for another researcher. Though it was never a promise made, nor material passed on, in effect, that is now what is happening.

Someday, hopefully, I'll actually get my hands on that man's notebooks and see for myself the records he uncovered in carefully cataloging his family line. It will be exciting to actually see what work has already been done. But in the meantime, it is such an awe-inspiring feeling to realize one is a part of something bigger—a project passed down through the generations, with details too big for just one researcher to handle alone. Even more important, how exciting to be the one who enables the work of another to live on for at least a few more years. What a way to preserve the story for yet another generation.

And now, I'll get to be the one awaiting the revelation of just who it will be who will step up next to be the one to carry the work forward. After all, there will always be yet another generation.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Filling in the Blanks

How important it is to take the opportunity to interview relatives—not just once but as many times, over the years, as possible. Yes, in the earlier years, people certainly have fresher memories of their older relatives. But some things come to the forefront of memory right after the fact, pushing aside reflections that only evolve into greater insight later. Sometimes, those secondary reflections can be more telling than the original reporting of the factual side of memories.

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with my cousin and his wife yesterday. While I've plied him with family questions repeatedly over the years—he has graciously been the one with the patience to keep at it, no matter how many questions I've had—there is always more to learn.

This time, our visit was more in the style of a reminiscing chat than the step by step note-taking tasks of earlier years. We puzzled together over the enigmas in our family's history, why certain relatives were so reticent to tell about their experiences in conversation. And as we talked about our research frustrations, our own conversation mirrored the pattern that, eventually, have gotten a few others in the preceding generation to open up and talk.

Our main research problem is that our grandfather never told anyone much about his past. He tried to pass himself off as a descendant of an Irishman, when in fact he was Polish. Part of that, we now understand, was both a case of economic necessity and political survival in an era when there was no Poland—those of Polish descent were considered to be part of Germany in a war era in which that ethnic background was not viewed favorably. But there was something else quite mysterious about his choice to conceal his background. We knew next to nothing about him—even this cousin who, unlike myself, knew him personally.

Having already beat that issue soundly—rehashing our research problem yielded no further clues—our visit turned to a time of reminiscing about various relatives. Because my dad—his uncle—was a professional musician during the time in which New York City had a much more active show scene, my cousin often had the opportunity to go visit him at the theater in which he played. What a thrill for a teenager to have the opportunity to sit backstage or in the orchestra pit during a show—and to rub shoulders with some big names in the entertainment field. And what an eye opener to see these people, behind the scenes, when others knew only of their public personalities.

My cousin got to telling some stories about his observations of my dad in action at work that I've never heard. Of course, as much as our grandfather never talked about himself, apparently, neither did my dad. I came away from yesterday's visit gleaning a few examples of just what my dad was like in action—character clues I'd otherwise have never seen through anyone else's eyes.

Just getting that gift of gab flowing was helpful. No agenda at hand to pump for specific details. Sometimes, a plot like that only bogs down the conversation. Better not to have that sense of a desperado, absolutely having to achieve that interview mission before leaving—as if it were for the last time, or else. Far better to view the interview process as a series that can be revisited as needed, rather than a once-for-all, or else, process.

My brother had used that same approach once, during a visit at my aunt's eightieth birthday party. Rather than the do-or-die approach, he just settled in for a nice, comfortable chat as he gently drew my aunt down memory lane. Surely my aunt was flattered at the attention. But she also was tracking with him as he walked her from one memory of favorite relatives, to "the time when..." opportunities to talk about recollections of good times.

The episode had taken on the aura of a conversation rather than an interview. There were no questions that could be "answered wrong." The give and take of the conversation meant both parties were contributing to the memories. And when my aunt's memory ran into dim or hazy patches, my brother had been able to deftly steer her towards parts of the episode that she could remember more clearly.

While our visit with my cousin and his wife yesterday certainly didn't encounter those kinds of memory hazards, it was just a more relaxing experience to hear those memories unfold. Not driven by an agenda of getting all those questions answered, but by the enjoyment of letting the mind travel down the memory lanes chosen at the moment, I got to learn a lot about family members in the years preceding my own arrival, late, on the family scene.

Sometimes, it's when we limit ourselves to specific time frames or sets of questions that simply must be answered that we miss all that can come our way. Why limit ourselves to the be-all, end-all approach to interviewing, when taking the opportunity to have yet another visit with a cherished family member can be not only so much more enjoyable, but informative as well.      

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's Still True—
The Vital Importance of Oral Interviews

I'm on the road again. Near relatives, of course. So naturally, I have the opportunity to interview these folks—but did I think of that when I first started planning my trip? Of course not. Somehow, in my mind, the concept of genealogical research had morphed from pen on paper and face-to-face inquiry to online pursuits.

I suspect your experience might have become the same. After all, there is so much that can be accomplished online in our quest to document the lives of our forebears. Digitized documents bring the array of necessary paperwork right to our desks, thanks to some well-placed taps on the computer keyboard by our little fingertips. Who moans about snail mail delays anymore?

The invisible corollary that may have suffered in the demise of old fashioned research legwork might be the face to face interview. Since we can obtain so much from virtual expeditions, why leave the comfort of our armchair to actually go visit those relatives we haven't seen in months, er, years?

So here I am in Florida, home of relatives on three sides of our collective families. How can I not take this opportunity? But I find my interviewing skills somewhat rusty. And, in odd contrast, I also find those interviewing skills supercharged by having my genealogical notes right at hand, accessible for any questions with the click of a mouse or a tap on my iPad.

Meeting with my mother's cousin—the baby of her generation and one of the few remaining in that cohort—she pulled out a piece of paper to discuss the fine points of our McClellan line, needing a place to sketch out the pedigree. As she spoke, I double checked her information against what I had already entered in my records.

I was fortunate that this cousin was daughter of a man who, though now long gone, had left extensive research notes, himself. What a treasure! What an opportunity to carry on from where his work left off.

Another plus was the warnings this cousin was able to give. Apparently, as sometimes happens, a distant relative had circulated some erroneous information on this tree, and my visitor was concerned that I steer clear of this disinformation. I'm so glad for the heads up—something that couldn't be provided except by those who have already worked on their family history.

The line we two share happens to be the McClellan line I've recently been discussing. I'm pursuing the political involvement of members of this family, down through the generations, and had been keen on plying this cousin with questions. She personally remembered the closer generations of this family and was able to verify what I had stumbled upon, online. While McClellan isn't exactly a Smith kind of surname, there are quite a few out there with this name. If you don't think so, just google "George McClellan" and see how far afield your search can bring you. A middle initial and dates for lifespan can make all the difference in the world.

Today, I'll be headed off in another direction: to visit a cousin on my father's side. He, too, will have the benefit of a family member who has delved into genealogical research, but in this case, it is someone younger than both of us—his daughter. While I can share notes with her on what she has discovered, I'll save that for another trip. For today's visit, it's most vital that I ply my cousin with questions about his personal memories of all the family members on my father's side of the family.

The unique perspective that this cousin can provide is his personal experience with many of the relatives no longer with us—people he knew as a child and young adult, whom I never had the opportunity to meet, let alone get to know. This line, if you recall, descends from an immigrant who arrived in New York harbor and soon after changed his name, hoping to obliterate any trace of his former self—whatever that past might have entailed.

When the topic of oral interviews is brought up, many researchers assume that signals an initial interview—the kind where the older generation faces a barrage of questions about names, dates, and locations suitable to include as a new researcher begins a pedigree chart. That process, in my case, has long been completed, thus don't expect a helpful how-to list for launching your own interview process.

Despite having moved far beyond those initial research steps, I still find it valuable to engage in oral interviews. Only in my case, I'm looking to verify details found online and stitch together the facts behind unusual discoveries that don't make sense on paper.

I have another reason for taking this second opportunity for oral interviews. As my mother's cousin reminded me yesterday, she and her brother are among the last of that generation. If any of their memories are to be preserved for future generations, now is the time.

The cousin I am going to visit today had once commented about our grandparents to me, "If only I had thought to ask those questions when they were still around." So true. I've heard numerous people echo that same sentiment—and I'm not even related to them! We all lose when we, in our young lives, are too busy with our own commitments to reach out and preserve the treasures soon to slip away.

When I teach beginners how to launch their genealogical pursuits, of course I include that stock line of instruction—to interview family members to help these beginners fill in the lines on their pedigree charts. Usually, though, most of the people taking my classes are soon-to-be or recently retired. A fair number of them have already lost their parents; grandparents are out of the question.

Does this mean I shouldn't offer that advice? Of course not. Though people such as those in my classes may not have the luxury of sitting down to a delightful discussion with their grandparents, they can still set aside time to visit with other relatives. While younger aunts and uncles are still available, that's an avenue. Reaching out to the extended family—such as my visit with my mother's cousin the other day—is an option. Keep in mind that, at least in some families, wide age differences may yield possibilities. For instance, in my family, my oldest sibling is twenty years older than I am; that's two decades of family memories I was unable to be part of, but which I can gather via discussions with those who were there.

Every moment that slips by pulls with it the chance to recapture memories of your family's experiences. But there is no need to give up the pursuit just because your parents are no longer with you. Until you are the oldest one remaining, the last one left in your generation, keep plugging away with questions about family memories. Even if all you are left with is your sister or brother who is a year or two younger than you, keep asking questions; some people remember events differently than the others who went through the "same" experience.

No matter how big your family tree has become, or how many documents you can retrieve thanks to your online subscriptions, you simply cannot rely solely on your online research prowess. While people may err in memories of dates or middle names of second cousins twice removed, what they do remember are the shared experiences with other family members—the stories which yield the flavor of just what those ancestors were once like. This is the only way to complete the telling of your family's story—all the rest, to a novice audience, becomes fodder for that "my eyes glaze over" reception. 


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's All About the Money

It takes a lot of poking around on the last few pages of Google search hits to unearth any mentions of the day-to-day legislative involvement of a minor player in Territorial politics. But that is part of the life story of my third great grandfather, and I decided I wanted to know more about him. I'm not satisfied with the mere label of "farmer" in a census record for my genealogical research.

Granted, if it weren't for the digitizing of such obscure volumes as the 1842 Journal of the Proceedings of the Senate of the Territory of Florida, I wouldn't have found printed verification of some of the disputes going on behind the scenes which might explain why Florida's first constitution was drawn up in 1838, but didn't gain the territory access as a full-fledged state until 1845. Perhaps the contention surrounding that original constitution might also explain why the original version of the document has never since been found.

Thankfully, in the process of this search, I've managed to unearth verification that, indeed, my third great grandfather's name was included in list of "ayes" which passed both the preamble and resolution on one particular contentious issue in that 1838-1839 gathering.

The problem, however, was that the wording of those documents included phrases considered by some to be rather impolitic, and thus, were brought up in votes to suppress the document before its intended journey to Washington, D.C., where it would be part of required procedures for admission to the union of the United States.

Talk about incendiary language. During the Florida Territory's legislative council meeting on Friday, January 14, 1842, a certain representative introduced a preamble and resolution "expunging certain proceedings...from the Journals." The material referenced a resolution regarding "the Banks and other Corporations in this Territory" fingering certain banks, railroads, insurance entities and
other grants of powers highly objectionable, which have already produced serious injuries, & are calculated to embarrass the government of the State in its future operations, and also to produce further great loss, detriment and injury to the people.

The goal behind these accusations was apparently to petition the Congress of the United States to  
remedy and correct the injury for the future, and relieve the people from their embarrassment in this respect.

The petition didn't just stop at these generalities. Of course, the request went on to ask for Congress to pass a law
to remedy as far as practicable, the evils that have already resulted from the improvident and injudicious acts of the Territorial Legislature, and to prevent the disastrous consequences which it is apprehended may ensue from the same cause [that would] affect injuriously the character and honor of the people of Florida.

As you can imagine, a proposal like this didn't sit well with some of the Territory's elected officials. The January 14, 1842, session was actually a continuation of business from the preceding days' debate, which mainly was concerned with the indebtedness incurred by votes regarding various bonds and other money issues involving specific incorporations. Entered into the day's record was not only the full preamble and resolution from which the above excerpts were drawn, but also the list of all names voting both for and against the 1838 preamble and resolution.

Firmly ensconced in the midst of those names voting for the offending proposal was none other than my third great grandfather, George E. McClellan.

As rebuttal to the supposed overreach of the state's Constitutional Convention, a counter-resolution had been offered the following month, basically accusing the original body of meddling in affairs it ought not to have tackled—"travelled beyond the pale of their duties," as the document emphatically put it. Not just that, but it was "impolitic, unjust, and inexpedient, and calculated to impair their credit and usefulness."

Them's fightin' words.

The upshot? The resolution called—but not until January of 1842—for the original constitution's section on banks and other corporations to be "regarded only as the expression of individual sentiment" and that "our Delegate in Congress" resist any changes to the charters of the "aforesaid incorporated institutions" of the Territory of Florida.

Well, you know that had to come to a vote, as well. When all was said and done, the decision was to "expunge" from the Journals the "said above recited resolutions and proceedings of this House." That was duly noted, instructions were sent to the Florida delegate in Congress, and presumably, all progressed from that point toward statehood for Florida. Previous charters of incorporation were preserved—whatever the original problem had been was now disregarded.

Makes me want to go back in time and ask George McClellan what all the fuss was about, anyhow. Someone must have been concerned about following the money. Between banks, insurance companies, railroads, and other entities, even before the place had achieved statehood, Florida was already big business.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Like Father, Like Son

It seems reasonable, now that I'm in Florida researching the history of my McClellan ancestors, to not allow myself to get distracted by the one fact that my third great grandfather was a signer of the original state constitution, and miss out on checking into the stories of anyone else in the family. For instance, what would a son be like, who saw his father's involvement in the state militia and in the formative years of his region's government?

Though William Henry McClellan may not have followed in his father's footsteps to attain the position—no matter how briefly—as a representative in the Florida State government, he apparently ran in some local races. Living in the northern part of the state in a little town called Wellborn, he showed up in some archived records of state elections.

In November, 1876, for instance, William H. McClellan received nine votes for constable in Suwannee County. Apparently, that wasn't sufficient to qualify him for the position. But it did show he tried—at least he was in the race.

For the year 1896, he seemed to fare somewhat better. In the Florida Secretary of State's report for that year, William McClellan was listed as Justice of the Peace for District Nine, encompassing Wellborn.

In other accomplishments, at least according to his Find A Grave memorial, he was listed as a Captain, undoubtedly for his role in the Civil War. But if you were to look up the man's occupation in the census records, it merely reported his occupation as farmer.

I suspect there were a lot of farmers in that century's census records who followed suit—a life not reflected adequately by the government's official documents.

Piecing together these little scraps of hints yielded up by a Google search, I get a mosaic of what this man might have been like. In the shadow of his father yet trying to offer up skills of his own, he was possibly hampered by the smallness of the community in which he grew up.

On the other hand, reflecting on his situation, it does open my eyes to see possible reasons why his son—my great grandfather—might have left the tiny town he called home for better opportunities elsewhere. And it also clues me in to those late night political conversations my mother remembered falling asleep to, as a child, and the likely influences behind my great grandfather's decision to run for mayor in his own time—which he did, serving for one term in another small town called Fort Meade.

Part of what we are certainly can be attributed to what we received through our parents. Some of it will be thanks to what we learned in our formative years. Relying on assumptions like this might not be as foolproof as following the Genealogical Proof Standard, but they may shed some light on the types of people our ancestors once were.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Here, But Not Necessarily Now

I'm in Florida, doing penance as I recall my faults. It was nearly six years ago—not long after I launched this blog—when I posted a series of articles on the McClellan side of my mother's family. In particular, I wanted to focus on my third great grandfather, George Edmund McClellan, who happened to be one of the representatives at the first Florida state constitutional convention in 1838.

I don't know about you, but having an ancestor who had his name signed to a constitution—even if it was just a state constitution—seems like a big deal. I thought it would lead to a wealth of documented resources providing his biography.

Silly me. The best I could come up with was a listing of the constitution's signers—made more challenging by the fact that there is no document to verify that fact; no one knows what happened to the original document. All the State of Florida has is what is known as a "secretary's copy," with only the signatures of the convention's president and secretary affixed.

Well, there is the oral tradition. And it is fortunately preserved in online resources close to George McClellan's home in the northern part of the state.

And, at least, there is a stub of an article on George E. McClellan sitting in the ether at the back end of the digital universe known as Wikipedia.

In 2011, I promised myself I'd learn how to be a Wikipedia contributor and make that situation right. You notice how quickly I got onto that. Here it is, nearly seven years later, and nary a word has been added to the article at Wikipedia. Up until today, I hadn't even found out how to sign up as a contributor—although I have since discovered numerous help articles, now that I've suffered vast waves of remorse over my procrastinating ways.

The next step—same as it was six years ago—is to take action. I think learning to post material on Wikipedia is an excellent genealogically-minded project. So why not get with it?!

In the here and now—something quite foreign to such a procrastinator as I am—I have all excuses for action removed from me. I used to say, "whenever I get around to traveling to Florida"—but now I'm here. I could do that research right now, except for a few obstacles. The major one, of course, is my miserable habit of procrastinating.

The second one is...I had no idea how long a state this place is! Living in California as I do, I've become accustomed to traveling great distances and still being in the same state. Unlike those who are, for instance, residents of a place like Rhode Island, for a Californian, a drive of several hours becomes merely the cost of doing business. And here, I thought I could just pop up to the state capital and do some research in their archives—until I discovered it would entail a six hour round trip, just for the drive.

This predicament doesn't leave me without options, however. I may as well capitalize on the fact that I'm in the home state of those McClellans and see what else can be found while I'm here. According to some online records, George McClellan may not be the only one in the family to be involved in Florida's government.

Above: George E. McClellan. 1838. Black & white photoprint. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

While Ireland Was Sleeping

Communicating with another side of the world—something which might have taken months, back in some of the eras in which we've been pursuing our families' histories—is now simply a matter of a tag team approach. While Ireland is sleeping, I dispatch an email or post a comment on social media, call it a night, and while I'm sleeping, Ireland wakes up and sees my message.

Add that to the many benefits of attempting genealogical research in the digital age. It is certainly accelerating my quest to locate a living descendant of the couple whose Christmas 1936 photo album ended up five thousand miles from their home by 2015, the year I found it in an antique shop in a neighboring town in northern California.

After that rapid volley between members of the Cork Genealogical Society on their closed Facebook page in response to my Saint Patrick's Day query, one of the participants suggested that I take a look for a particular name on Facebook. I did. Of course, there were five or six options from which to select my candidate for contact. One never knows whether the first choice will turn out to be the right choice, but the only way to proceed with this quest is to take the step and make at least one choice.

This option, of course, would greatly speed up the possibility of a response. I went ahead, selected one of the names on the Facebook list, put in a friend request and added a private message. Just as I had started Saint Patrick's Day—with a post to the Facebook group at midnight at the start of the holiday—I ended it with a tentative message direct to the person I hoped would be the right one.

And wished for a graceful reception to my brazen intrusion on someone's privacy.

Just as our family was finally collapsing into bed that night—after frantically packing for a cross-continental flight in the morning—my husband heard a little "ding" come from my phone. I was already oblivious to the noise, so he simply mentioned it the next morning, figuring it was just a text about our trip the next day.

The next morning, after running to get to the airport on time, we finally settled in at the gate. While awaiting boarding, I remembered his comment and decided to check my texts before powering down my phone.

I was surprised to see I hadn't received any.

Instead, there was a notification that I had received a note via Facebook Messenger.

There, in the midst of the rush and noise of a busy airport, it seemed like being suddenly transported to a different world. I wanted to jump and shout, but remembered to keep my composure in such a public setting. This was, after all, an airport. No sense in causing undue alarm. Besides, this was a good jump and shout episode.

While Ireland was sleeping, I had sent the twenty-first century's equivalent of a message in a bottle. By the time I retired for the night—and while Ireland was just starting to awaken—someone five thousand miles from me was sending a message back.

It was a good message. She's the right choice. After eighty years, the album Harry and Alice Hawkes Reid sent as a Christmas greeting will soon be going home.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Lightning Speed of Social Media

Like money burning a hole in my pocket, the mystery photograph album I found in a northern California antique store has been yearning to be set free and sent back home. You may recall that, just the other day, I decided to do something about that. After all, I've had that album for at least two years, and have blogged extensively on it for two months—without a nibble of inquiry.

So, I put out the plea for genealogically-minded friends and family to help me spread the word. I want to see that album returned to family, even if that family is still back in County Cork, Ireland.

I posted on Facebook, asking people to share the post with their own network. A few of my friends and family members—ironically, only the ones who haven't been smitten by the genealogy bug—were kind enough to oblige.

I put up some tweets on Twitter—strategically posted throughout the day, especially during times in which Irish readers might be online—but heard not a peep from the few retweets I was able to glean.

Perhaps switching tactics might do the trick, I thought, and went looking for logical places to seek aid in this search. Realizing that the entire genealogical world has shifted from utilizing the old forum settings of the 1990s (even if they are still hosted at, I started looking at the social site genealogists now call home: Facebook. There, as Gail Dever of Genealogy a la Carte has often pointed out, there are thousands of Facebook groups dedicated to pondering local genealogy questions.

Of course, one of those groups was located in County Cork. Perfect. That's exactly where our Hawkes and Reid families once lived. The goal now was to try and connect with a descendant of that family.

I requested admittance to the closed Facebook group on Saint Patrick's Day and sent my rather long-winded query. By early afternoon the next day, I was receiving all sorts of hints and direction about what could be found on the family from the Irish side of the research equation.

Long story short: I now have a name and a possible address. Next step: take in a deep breath and reach out to see if I can connect. Hopefully, the answer will be yes, and that little unassuming family photograph album will soon be finding its way back home.

Friday, March 17, 2017

I Only Thought I was Irish

I spent the better part of my growing up years thinking I was twenty five percent Irish. I mean, what would you think, with a name like McCann? It wasn't until I graduated from college that a well-meaning cousin disabused our family of that notion.

Chalk it up to one of those school projects to build a family tree. A younger cousin landed the assignment and was tenacious enough to push through the family legends and discover that...imagine that!, we weren't Irish, but Polish. I've written about that story here before. It didn't really rock my world—I always thought it was suspicious that I absolutely abhor corned beef and cabbage (sold to unsuspecting underage Americans as the epitome of Irishness). But there were some in my family who suffered an uncomfortable image shift.

Even years later, when I set to work on my husband's family history, I discovered he came with some Irish heritage stories as well. Three of my father-in-law's four grandparents were born in Ireland, and all eight of his great grandparents were. But a simple Y-DNA test revealed that perhaps his Irish roots only grew about as deep as a Viking conquest—at least, according to what we know about that haplogroup today.

I wonder how many others may be surprised to learn the truth about their ethnic heritage. The "Kiss me, I'm 24% Irish" DNA ad campaign at might garner a few unexpected results—in both directions.

Still, if ever you wanted to research the possibility of your Irish roots, this is the day—or, in some cases, the week—to do it. If you really hurry (translation: Californians, catch this offer before 4 p.m. today), you can get in on the free offer at Findmypast for what they bill as the largest collection of Irish records "anywhere online."

Geneabloggers' genius Thomas MacEntee offered this tip: Ancestry is offering free access to its Irish collection through Sunday, March 19.

And Canadian genealogy blogger Gail Dever passed along the word that the New England Historic Genealogical Society is offering free access to its holdings of Irish resources through next Wednesday, March 22.

I suspect you are already familiar with any possibilities of Irish origins in your heritage. Unless, of course, you are, like I was, victim of a vast family conspiracy to conceal the true story about your roots. But it wouldn't hurt to take this opportunity to brush up on the details. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Putting Six (Irish) Degrees
of Separation to Work

I've been thinking of the Irish a lot, lately. Yes, yes, of course it's Saint Patrick's Day tomorrow. People worldwide claiming a ride on the coattails of the Irish Diaspora will use that opportunity to shout, "Kiss me, I'm Irish"—tomorrow.

Today, though, I'm hoping to ride the coattails of some connected people in the genealogical social media world. The goal is to see if a friend of a friend can help me get a long-lost item back home to the descendants of its rightful owners.

Those owners, by the way, just happened to be Irish. And this little object which I've come into possession of managed to travel from someplace in County Cork all the way to an antique store in northern California.

The journey this package made began with a Christmas delivery in 1936. If you have been a regular here at A Family Tapestry, you will remember my introducing the little treasure in a post last December. From that point, it is still a mystery how the item moved from its intended destination to the location in which I found it, just a few years ago.

In the meantime, during the months of January and February, I was able to delve into the notes left on each page of the family photo album to figure out, first, where the family lived—a place in the country called Bride Park House—and, eventually, who some of the family members (and friends) were. With that knowledge, I was able to trace part of the Hawkes family tree, and ultimately figure out who the mystery couple was—Harry and Alice Reid—who had sent the album as a gift.

Of course, it would be wonderful if I could locate the descendants of Henry Reid and Alice Hawkes Reid. And I know there is someone out there directly related to that family, simply because I located a person who posted the family's pedigree on

Alas, there's been no answer to my attempts at direct contact. Though thanks to reader Intense Guy, I've been able to connect with a researcher concentrating on a distant branch of the Hawkes family tree—who has, incidentally, been very encouraging—I otherwise haven't had one nibble to my inquiries.

And you know how impatient I can be.

So while everyone is turning their mind to the Irish this week, I thought perhaps a friend of a friend of a friend could help me connect with some good folks in County Cork, Ireland—someone who might know how to get in touch with the descendants of Henry Reid and his wife Alice, or any one of the family of John Pim Penrose Hawkes and his wife, Sarah Ruby.

On the face of it, this seems like a monumentally impossible task. After all, the distance from origin to final landing is almost five thousand miles. There is no telling—at least, so far—how this family photograph album made its way from start to unintended finish.

There is, however, that little theory—most commonly called "six degrees of separation"—in which the distance between any two given strangers may be as short as a connection of six or fewer steps. That's where the friend of a friend of a friend idea comes in.

With all the interconnectivity we now experience thanks to devices like social media, those six steps may be rather easily taken. While you may not know anyone in County Cork, you may know someone else who does have a connection in Ireland. If so, won't you consider becoming that Some Kind Soul who forwards this post with a request to pass it along to someone else who might be even closer to our target?

Whether you help pass along this request to someone you know in Cork, or someone you know who is associated with the Reid or Hawkes family—their cousins in Canada, the United States or wherever they now are—if you could spread the word that I have a family photo album that I'd like to see sent back home, I'd be quite grateful.

And if you could see the process completed in six steps, consider it your validation of our little science experiment. If you beat the odds and complete the process in five steps or less, all the more support for the idea that our world is growing ever smaller.

If nothing else, you'd know that you helped return a family treasure back to the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the couple who lovingly compiled those photos, back in 1936. I'm sure they'd appreciate having that treasure returned back home, no matter how many steps it takes.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Genealogical Hindsight

If I had it all to do over again, I probably should have heeded that nagging voice that kept screaming at me, "Just look up the name." But then, if I had done just that, where would be all that delicious process of discovery?

I'm not sure efficiency is the goal of every genealogical researcher. Perhaps yes, if you are doing it for money. But I'm not. I'm doing it for the journey, as much as I am doing it for the yearning to know where I came from. It's much different when you let that flower unfold on its own than when you force those petals to yield to pressure.

True, if I had just looked up the name that kept bugging me—Charles Robb—I would have instantly confirmed my recall was on the right track. But look at the span of generations I wouldn't have paid much mind in the process. The bonus was the delight of discovery—unfolding in its own way and catching me by surprise.

This may not sound like appropriate validation for the meandering techniques I used—to say nothing of my procrastinating ways—but now that I look back on the path taken, I guess it was just what I needed.

I found many more details than I posted in the story about this particular line of descent from my sixth great grandmother, Jane Strother, and her husband, Thomas Lewis of Augusta County, Virginia.

For instance, in discovering the connection with Charles Robb, I learned that an old, now historic home—the Wallace Estill House—has been mentioned as the senator's "ancestral home." Listed among the buildings in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the Wallace Estill House description preserves a version of the history of this same Estill family we've been recounting here over the past several days. I likely would never have gone seeking it if I hadn't first meandered through everything I could find on this family's line of descent.

A direct-line dash through the generations may yield bragging rights to ancestors way back in the 1500s, but I sense the tug of a dichotomy: a genealogist, in the end, may either be able to accomplish depth or breadth in his or her research. If you've been following along here at A Family Tapestry for any length of time, you've surely observed my penchant for seeking out the story, exploring implications of the broader context, tracing the interwoven facets of family heritage linked across the generations.

So while it may seem rational to insist on zooming to the "right" judgment call and seeking the fastest route to the answer, perhaps it would be more kind of me to stop beating myself up about not listening to my inside voice. It's okay that I didn't look up that name. So he was famous. In the end, for the sake of the journey, I'm glad I didn't find out sooner.

Above: "Rose Blossoms," oil on cardboard by German artist Anna Peters (1843 - 1926); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Unpredictable Trail
Leading to Genealogical Discoveries

Who can explain the unpredictable outcomes that sometimes pop up when we attempt to uncover our ancestral past? Thankfully, there are heartwarming "coincidences" to counterbalance the never-ending drudgery of attempting to serve as human battering ram against those impenetrable genealogical brick walls.

And who can explain the seeming illogical approaches we researchers sometimes take? No matter how much that small voice nagged me about looking up that name I was working on—Charles Robb—I couldn't find it in me to do just that simple little matter. It was a roundabout way that led me to—finally—stumble upon the answer I would have had right away, if only I had paid attention to what my better senses were screaming at me.

With the eldest child of James and Frances Woolley Robb being born on the cusp of the 1940 census enumeration, there was little chance I'd discover anything substantial about their other children—if there were any other children to be found, at all. Besides, with that unfortunate entry for their baby in the 1940 census—listed only as "infant"—there was little for me to go on.

Since I couldn't move forward on this particular line, I had only a few details to wrap up on James Robb and his wife, and I would advance to the next step in my usual research protocol. If it weren't for the fact that I still needed to look up the dates and places for the couple's passing, I wouldn't have stumbled upon the serendipitous discovery I found at Find A Grave.

There to insure that I didn't just walk away without learning the rest of this line's story was the Find A Grave entry for James Spittal Robb. His last days were spent, apparently, in Fauquier County, Virginia, where he died on October 17, 1995.

It wasn't the mere gleaning of a genealogically significant date that was the capstone discovery, but the fact that some kind soul out there thought it might be helpful to post an article from the Milwaukee Sentinel, of all places, which included mention of both James and Frances Robb. While the volunteer was quite careful to remove mention of any person still living, she included quite an informative excerpt from the September 16, 1967, article.

The article, by Marian McBride, had a title which promised to be worth the read: "Robb's Lineage Old, Good." I took a glance at the body of the article, just in case I hadn't already captured any of the information the writer had included.

I didn't have to look far. The first sentence included by the Find A Grave volunteer in this excerpt began, "Their son's wedding is slated to be the first in the White House since 1918...."

I knew it! That name just rang a bell. Forget senator. Forget governor. How could anyone forget that fairy tale ending, dream-come-true wedding?

And this was the guy.

Oh, he was all the others, too. By this time, I had finally brought myself to Google the guy's name. Sure enough, there was the photograph of the handsome young marine, with the hand of the eldest daughter of the United States President tucked in his arm. Along with that, the Wikipedia article confirmed all the rest of the man's accomplishments.

Just in case some Wikipedia volunteer got that all wrong, I looked up the bio for the son of James and Frances Robb in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Senator? Check.

And—doubting Thomasina that I am—I consulted the Encyclopedia Virginia, the official publication of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Governor of Virginia? Check.

But most interesting was the realization that here were the details on a man who was, incredibly enough, related to my family. Admittedly, sixth cousin once removed is quite a distance, genealogically speaking. We likely share zero centiMorgans of DNA, based on that level of relationship. But hey: it's a more likely link than anything the "We're Related" app could conjure up—and besides, I did the research for it all, myself. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Finding an Unnamed Baby

It's a long way from the 1749 wedding of my sixth great grandparents Jane Strother and Thomas Lewis to the moment at which Susan Gay Estill said "I do" to Scottish immigrant Charles Spittal Robb in 1907. Five generations, in fact.

Suffice it to say, as well, that that name which tickled my memory—Charles Robb—could not possibly have aligned with a date as far back as 1907. That hardly mattered, of course, because—you know me, the procrastinator—I never bothered to listen to that nagging voice in the back of my mind. I didn't take the time to do a search on it—then. I needed a few more nudges, first.

I did, however, think something should be done about it. So when I found verification of the couple's children's names, I gave the list the once over. And—oh, look! They had a son named Charles.

Charles junior, I thought, would be the name that would hit pay dirt and clue me in to whatever it was in the back of my mind urging me to look it up. But no. As it turned out, a search through available genealogical records on Gay Estill Robb's third child, Charles Stuart Robb, failed to turn up any verification as to his whereabouts, subsequent family relationships, or, for that matter, claims to fame. While I could come up with confirmation of the dates and locations of his birth and death—and the fact that he served in the army—there was little else I could discover about him.

Apparently, this was not the Charles Robb I was looking for. So, I reverted to my standard research procedure: start from the oldest child, find all documentation I could on him, his wife, and children. And move on from there.

That was how I got back on track and started—thankfully—with the Robbs' oldest son, James. Born in 1908, James was bestowed with his paternal grandmother's maiden name as his middle name—the same middle name his father had carried. Arriving on the first of November in Randolph County, West Virginia, James Spittal Robb continued to call that place home until sometime after the arrival of his brother Charles in 1912, but before his sister Margaret's birth in 1918.

By the time of Margaret's arrival, the family had settled in Bethesda, Maryland, where their father, the Scottish immigrant, had become involved in real estate. By the time of the 1930 census, James' father's business concerns turned to "investments" in the "coal and timber" industries. According to the 1940 census, the elder Robbs had moved into Washington, D.C., where the senior Charles Robb listed himself as a member of the committee of H.O.L.C.—Home Owners' Loan Corporation, the New Deal creation under President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed to provide refinancing options to homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

That, of course, was long after the Robb children had left home to strike out on their own. In fact, by the time of the 1940 census, their son James had already been married for nearly four years, and was the proud father of an infant son.

Lest you thing that was the prompt that sent me, finally, scurrying to Google that well-known name, think again. Not only was James far removed from his hometown in West Virginia—not to mention, his high school stomping grounds in Bethesda, Maryland—but he and his wife had failed to reveal just what they had named their baby. As far as the 1940 census went, that firstborn son was called, simply, "infant."

Above: "Pleasant Game in the Yard," by German portrait painter Theodor Kleehaas (1854 - 1929); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Playing in the Genealogical Sandbox

It's tally time again: time to check my progress in each of four family trees I've been tackling, ever since participating in DNA testing programs promising the moon matches to distant cousins. While I haven't made stellar progress in the past two weeks, I have taken the time to experiment with some different approaches to muddling through those comparisons between distant cousins.

It's been rather eye opening to have the results of three siblings among the test results I now administer. Sometimes, it's just fun to play with the stats, graphs and charts—to explore and see what bounces to the forefront. It's purely observational window shopping, of course—I have no set protocol. I'm just a DNA Lookie-Loo right now. But some ideas are managing to seep through this dense gray matter of mine.

For instance, a while back, I had noticed that one of those siblings—my husband and his two sisters who had agreed to become part of my "science project"—matched someone from Ireland whose acquaintance I had made at a genealogical conference in southern California. I recognized his name instantly, and just as quickly wondered how I could have missed seeing that name in my husband's matches (which I had received a couple years earlier than his sisters' match lists).

I went back to see how I had missed such an obvious name. Nothing there.

Alright, I thought, I'll try his other sister's list. But there was nothing there showing a match with this person, either.

That's when I began examining the nuances between the test results of the three siblings. Fifty-fifty re-creations of their parents' DNA they might have been, but each child got a different mix in his or her own set of chromosomes.

We all know that, of course. It's not just intuitive—open your eyes and take a look at any set of siblings. They are obviously different, no matter how much they all sport that "family resemblance."

I started taking to this notion of comparing the numbers, each time one sibling had a match. I'd go back, see if the others also had that match, then compare how the numbers varied between the siblings. I suppose this approach would be roughly akin to a preparatory step before doing visual phasing. I'd get the same type of result—and definitely one full of much more detail—if I had just done the phasing process itself. But this is me, just playing around in the sandbox. I'm exploring what can be observed. Just looking around.

With each new match, I started comparing results between the three siblings. For each match, I took a closer look at all the numbers—estimated relationship, number of centiMorgans total, measure of longest block—between each sibling and that same specific match. I wanted to see who, of the three, seemed most closely related to that match—and if I could sort matches, then, by branches of the family.

Of course, with well over a thousand matches, this could be a tedious process. But I don't mind at this point. I'm starting with the new matches, as they add to the previous list. And I'm still setting my cut-off point at the relationship range of second to fourth cousin. If nothing else, it's giving me a sense of how the genetic segments come into play, between the various branches of my husband's family.

As far as those DNA matches go, things have seemed to slow down a bit, now that we've distanced ourselves from those insane sales offerings during the winter holidays and conferences. With the exception of 23andMe's "+one" sale offering right now (through March 31, and apparently only for those who are already customers), our DNA match juggernaut has de-escalated. My husband only gained twenty five new matches in the past two weeks, bringing his total matches to 1,173—as opposed to the 126 matches he had gained in the prior period.

My own DNA match list seems to have settled back to routine advances, too—although admittedly, I edged out my husband by gaining thirty three to end up at 1,858 matches. That's at Family Tree DNA. But AncestryDNA isn't gaining many matches, either. I've gained twelve to end at 474; my husband is up ten to finish at 226.

Just as much as our DNA match list has simmered down to paltry levels of increase, so has my progress at adding relatives to our family trees. Though my mother-in-law's tree is at a decent total of 10,534, I only added seventy three names—plus appropriate support documentation—in the past two weeks. On my own mother's tree, a little more vigorous effort brought 145 names to the list, but the overall count for that list is 9,674.

Perhaps the inspiration of having three siblings participate in this DNA project has had the side effect of boosting growth on their mother's tree. I might just have to twist some siblings' arms to catch up on my side of the family.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Off the Shelf: Rewire

It's no secret I'm a procrastinator—in a huge way. Unless I'm about to do something I really enjoy, I can find dozens of ways to postpone the task for a "better" time. Even with those favorite activities, I catch myself putting things off til later—probably why I end up researching and writing my posts after dinner. While others spend their evenings vegging out in front of the television after a long day of tackling their to-do lists, I've finally gotten around to beginning those activities I enjoy the most.

Why the wait? A while back—that's procrastinator-speak for three years ago—I ran across a book which promised to use new insights into how the brain works to help people overcome bad habits. Admit it: procrastination is a bad habit, so the promise piqued my interest. I ended up buying the 2014 publication. And putting it on my bookshelf.

Yep. I immediately put off reading it. Why hurry? I hadn't yet had the time to duly procrastinate.

Speaking directly to those who are "somehow getting in their own way," psychotherapist and author Richard O'Connor uses Rewire to reach out to those prone to self-sabotage because "to our chagrin, we remain persistently ourselves."

In an empathetic, almost self-reflective style, the author observes that it "seems as if we have two brains, one wanting the best for us, and the other digging in its heels in a desperate, often unconscious, effort to hold on to the status quo."

He promises a book full of advice based on research drawn from various fields of brain science, inspecting just how it is that our brain really works—and what to do to "rewire" so that we are more mindful. are your New Year's resolutions doing? It's been almost a full quarter of the year since people sat down to draw up those sparkling plans for a better year. The reality of the matter is that—at least, if you are like me—those resolutions had to get packed up and stored away for a more hopeful year in the future (which is why I don't do New Year's resolutions any more). Perhaps, instead of beating ourselves up over not measuring up to our self-inflicted standards, considering some of Dr. O'Connor's advice might make a peaceful difference.

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