Monday, July 31, 2017

The Strange Ways of Cousin Bait

"Cousin bait" can work in mysterious ways. We post blogs and chat on online genealogical forums and fling our family surnames far and wide on social media...and receive nary a query about our ancestors. Just when we give up and decide to hunker down in our genea-caves to do some solitary research, out of the blue comes a little nibble of interest.

I got my latest contact via the messaging system at Someone had found my maternal family tree through a search for a specific couple in the Meriwether line. Because I've been doing everything possible to help connect distant relatives—not to mention, potential DNA matches—with the right portion of my extended tree, it includes doing what so many now call "reverse genealogy," seeking descendants of specific ancestor lines.

Needless to say, since my Meriwether ancestors go so far back in time—remember, this is the speculative connection I discussed during the past two weeks—that means a lot of lines of descendants have been added to my tree over the last several months. Enough, that is, to help locate the fourth cousin connections which seem to populate my match list at Family Tree DNA.

So when I got a note via the Ancestry messaging system, inquiring about one Esmonde Meriwether, born 1894 in Montgomery, Alabama, it was referencing someone who was the husband of my second cousin, thrice removed.

Not anyone I knew personally, you see.

The situation was this: the woman writing me explained, first of all, that she was not, herself, related to the Meriwether line. However, she was hoping I could help her connect to family who was more closely related to Esmonde and his wife Cornelia Meriwether (yes, a Meriwether married a Meriwether).

As it so often happens, this woman—Pat, an active genealogical researcher for over a decade—thankfully had a son who knew his mother's passion for family history. This son happened to be well known in his city for his home repair skills. A house in his own neighborhood had recently been sold and was in need of some rehab work. The new owner called this man in for assistance.

When Pat's son arrived at the property, he found it empty except for one small detail: a box of old photographs. The new homeowner told him he could have them, if he wanted.

Fortunately, Pat's son remembered his mother's penchant for genealogical research and gave her a call. He suggested she "might find someone that would be interested."

Interested? Of course! You know we all would be. After sending a surname-free photo album back to Ireland, this should be easy. Right?

The only identifying marks on the photos were the names of the Meriwether couple, thankfully named in one of the photos. I offered to share the photos here on A Family Tapestry, and my correspondent was certainly willing to let me do so—except that something happened before we could get to that point.

She started doing her own research.

And—you guessed it—she found family members of the named couple, herself.

What was interesting was that, while my Esmonde and Cornelia lived in Alabama, this house was in Virginia. Turns out, one of their children—a daughter—had married and had children of her own. That woman's daughter eventually moved and bought the home in Virginia, where eventually her mother—Esmonde and Cornelia's daughter—also came to live.

Of course, Pat's next thought was to see if either this woman or her daughter, though selling the house, still remained in the same city. It was a long shot to attempt that connection, because Esmonde and Cornelia's daughter would now be well into her nineties.

Pat's message to me continued,
I'm going to try and locate them. If I fail then I will scan the pictures and send them to you. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

True to her word, a little over two weeks later, I heard back from Pat. She wanted to provide an update. She did, indeed, find the daughter of Esmonde and Cornelia Meriwether. As Pat put it, that daughter is now "ninety five years young."

Pat's enthusiasm is infectious, as she reflects on her meeting and what she was able to return to family:
I met with her this morning and was able to give her the box of old pictures. She was delighted and very grateful. These were pictures of her husband, her brother..., herself as a young woman and a beautiful picture of her mother. There were also pictures of her daughter and her grandchildren. So glad I made the effort; her joy was worth it. I love happy endings.

When Connie, the blogger behind Forgotten Old Photos first gave me the nudge to start looking for "orphan photos" and figuring out how to return them to family, I discovered this same joy. While the result may be a small victory, it is a happy ending. Now that I've had that experience, I'm eager to encourage others to go out and do the same.

With this unexpected contact, thanks to the cousin bait inherent in genealogy blogging, I got to witness first hand another researcher's chance to experience that same altruistic joy over having put those research skills to good use. It's a different kind of genealogical kindness—perhaps even somewhat random. But just as rewarding to know that the skills we possess can be a blessing to others.

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Another Vanishing Month

July: the month so long it never seems to end becomes the vanishing month that flew by in a blink.

I had fully intended to share a story today, which someone had passed along to me—until I realized another two weeks had passed and it is time to check those research progress numbers once again. Let's take a pause in the photo album narrative to attend to duties before resuming with the promised story tomorrow. I've simply got to stay on track.

When there are many irons in the fire, things seem to catch up with me that way. And the research numbers seem to bear that out. Seemed like there was always something to do, but it apparently wasn't steady progress on my databases. You'll see what I mean.

In the last two weeks—and especially following the last time period, when I seemed to be zooming ahead with research progress—I didn't add too many names to our family trees. But I didn't do too badly, either.

For my mother's tree, the count was 10,970 in total, increased by 151 in the past two weeks. Add to that my mother-in-law's tree, where adding an additional 222 brought the total to 12,369 names. Not quite as much as in the previous two reports, but still a decent amount of progress. Unfortunately, on my father's and my father-in-law's trees, I've regressed to my former lack of effort. No progress in either of those two pedigrees.

I guess the Father's Day sales are finally beginning to show in our counts for DNA matches. That is good news for me, chomping at the bit for a solid connection with cousins I never knew I had. There were 54 additional matches for me at Family Tree DNA, bringing my total to 2,261, and 32 more for my husband, yielding a total of 1,474 matches for him. While I don't count anything but autosomal tests at Family Tree DNA, I did manage to confirm an mtDNA match this past week, as you've likely observed through last week's posts.

Results at the other testing companies weren't as robust. Of course, the number I track at AncestryDNA only shows cousins up to the level of fourth cousin, so naturally that total will be more modest than Family Tree DNA's, where they include cousins from sixth to "distant" in their count. Knowing that makes it more reasonable to see that I have only 670 (an increase of 16 in the past two weeks) and my husband has 319 (up 15) at AncestryDNA. And being ever the contrarian, 23andMe actually gives us a decrease in our total number of matches over the last two week period. I now have 1,179 (down 15) and my husband has 1,234 (down 10).

It's interesting to observe the variance between my results and my husband's. I have far more matches than he does at Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, and yet for 23andMe, his count is higher than mine. I've always presumed I had the higher count at the other two DNA testing companies because I have several colonial roots, but I'm not at all sure to what I'd ascribe the reverse trend at 23andMe.

With each of the testing services amassing ever larger databases with the passing of time, I keep hoping for some surprise breakthroughs—like discovering some answers for my father's paternal brick wall, or more clues to the rest of my father-in-law's Irish heritage. Perhaps these will come with time. In the meantime, the lesson most aptly illustrated by this process is the value of working, bit by bit, steadily over time. Eventually, these little bits do add up to something we can feel good about calling "progress."

Above: "Boats in a Canal," undated oil on canvas by Austrian landscape artist Adolf Kaufmann (1848 - 1916); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Thinking of August

Yes, I know August is just a few days away. It isn't the calendar that prompts my thoughts about August, though. It's the full circle of an eighty year long journey that is finally going to be completed in just a few days. And I can't wait until it happens.

If you recall, just after Christmas in 2016, I began a series in an attempt to figure out the origin of a mystery photograph album I found in an antique store near my home.

With work on the puzzle taking nearly four months to conclude—and with lots of help from many interested friends—the album which was sent as a Christmas present in 1936 finally gave up some of its secrets. The senders, it turns out, were one Harry and Alice Reid from County Cork in Ireland. The recipients may well have been the family of Harry's emigrant brother Richard, by then living in upstate New York.

By mid-March, I was talking to the granddaughter of Harry and Alice, who then put me in touch with the suspected recipient—well, actually, Richard's daughter, who now lives in Oklahoma. By the second week of May, that little photo album—no longer a mystery—began the first leg of its journey home to Ireland when I mailed it to Richard's daughter Rita, who wanted to see it once again.

And now begins the rest of the journey homeward. And this is why August is on my mind: in a matter of days, Rita's daughter will be traveling to visit family in Ireland. When she returns to County Cork, she will be bringing that little album, which she'll return to Harry and Alice Reid's granddaughter in the very place where the journey once started.

Of course, I'm thrilled to see the album come home again. But more than that, I'm pleased to see others catch that same enthusiasm for finding tokens of micro-history—those small treasures representing a family's history—and personally becoming part of the solution in guiding those objects back home to those who will appreciate their return.

Just the other day, someone found me courtesy of an online search, on account of that very issue: trying to reunite photographs with family. I'll share that story tomorrow, but as it turned out, those who are familiar with genealogical research techniques are already suited to the task at hand. And once the goal is accomplished and the objects reunited with the family of origin, the enthusiasm for sharing a part in that process is indeed contagious.

The beauty of stories such as this is that we all can play our part in reuniting these lost treasures with their families of origin. As one, then another success story makes its way out, to be shared with others, the effort seems to be amplified. More people realize ways they can help. The dynamics of crowdsourcing kick in, and word spreads—perhaps through blogs or social media, perhaps through groups or friends-of-friends. The more that help, the more those success stories multiply.

We are all so much more inter-connected than we realize, especially in this age of instant and global contact online. In an unofficial yet organically-grown way, our genealogical skills are leading us to a very different kind of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.

Above: Front cover of a photograph album sent as a Christmas gift from an Irish couple, Harry and Alice Reid, to an undisclosed recipient in 1936. The album is soon to make the final part of its journey home.   

Friday, July 28, 2017

DNA Testing :
Why We Can't Shoot for the Moon . . . Yet

While I may have made some astute guesses in figuring out who the parents were for my orphaned second great grandmother, Mary Rainey Broyles, I'm always hoping for further confirmation. A researcher is seldom satisfied.

It was indeed gratifying to find an exact mitochondrial DNA match linking me to the presumed third great grandmother to Mary—a woman named Margaret Watts, wife of William Strother of colonial Virginia. It also bolstered my confidence to see among my autosomal matches a fourth cousin descending from Mary's (erstwhile presumed) brother Thomas Rainey.

But I'm always wanting more confirmation. So why not look for a DNA match descending from an ancestor preceding that brick wall of the orphan's parents? After all, couldn't finding a descendant of Mary's presumed parents or grandparents cement my case even further?

At this point in the state of the art, I'd say that is the genetic genealogy equivalent of shooting for the moon. Perhaps someday; not quite yet.

Here's why: currently, our DNA test results are based on samplings of specific parts of the human genome; it doesn't include every bit of the data. When a whole genome test becomes available to the general public at a reasonable cost, things will be different. But for now, only specific sections of the genome are sampled. We aren't getting the full story yet.

There's even more to consider, as was capably pointed out by The Genetic Genealogist, Blaine Bettinger, when he stated in a 2009 post that "everyone has two family trees: a genealogical tree and a genetic tree."

In examining the possibility of genetic material shared by third cousins from their most recent common ancestor, Blaine observed that it is possible these two distant cousins "have segments of DNA from these ancestors, but they wouldn't show up as a match...unless they [possessed] the same segment of DNA."

So, first we need to remember we can compare segments only because they are part of the sampling included in the DNA test we are using. Then we need to realize that while we do receive small portions of DNA from these more distant common ancestors, there is nothing guaranteeing that all third cousins (or fourth cousins or beyond) will receive the exact same smidgeon from that exact same common ancestor.

That's where Bettinger's "genetic tree" comes in. Your genetic tree illustrates the DNA segments inherited from specific ancestors. Only at the nexus of the right segments in the right places—both your specific chromosome and your cousin's—will you have a DNA match. As Blaine observed in answer to a reader's question, a person may be third cousins with another relative on paper, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will both show up as DNA matches.

If that is so for a match between third cousins, then it is surely even more so for fourth cousins—which is the relationship I have with the Thomas Rainey descendant I match.

It would be even less likely if I were to hope for a match among those descended from the next generation up. In other words, while I am fortunate to have found a fourth cousin match to help muddle through this orphan puzzle concerning my second great grandmother via her brother, it would be even harder to ascertain her parents by seeking autosomal DNA matches from that more distant generation. Confirming relationship to Mary Meriwether Gilmer and her husband Warren Taliaferro as most recent common ancestor would put us in search of fifth cousins—doable, but not necessarily guaranteed to confirm.

On the other hand, if it happens, it happens. Any DNA match, obviously, yields the story of shared genetic material—as long as we can confirm through documentation which way the genealogical pathway went. But to go looking for fifth cousins on paper, then ask them to consider DNA testing, does not necessarily guarantee DNA confirmation of the relationship. Not at that distance.

Just as we have far to go before the general public can access full genome testing for a reasonable fee, the genealogical world has far to go before we can say we have access to every digitized document which could confirm our paper trails. Targeted research in locales pertinent to my ancestors' residence and migratory ways may yield a more readily accessible confirmation of my guesses about my second great grandmother's parents than can be had from the next generation of DNA tests at this point.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Confirming an Orphan's Ancestry: Another Option

The significance of finding an exact match to my mitochondrial DNA test result means so much more than the test itself, considering that matriline includes someone known to me only as an orphan. I had my guesses, as we've seen, but this type of confirmation bolsters any proof argument I could devise. As long as I have a firmly constructed argument, complete with thorough documentation for each step in the generational line from my second great grandmother Mary Rainey Broyles back to the woman who is most recent common ancestor for both my line and that of my exact match, I've got it made.

But there could be problems with that assumption, still. Perhaps Mary Rainey Broyles actually connected with that other match at a different point. Remember, I don't have solid proof that she was daughter of Thomas Firth Rainey and Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro. I just have indications. The relationship could have taken a different generational pathway that I haven't yet discovered.

Another route that could bolster my argument might be to use other DNA matches in conjunction with what I've already laid out. And it just so happens that I have a Rainey match from a different DNA test: the autosomal test, which reveals relatives as distant as fifth and sometimes even sixth cousin, reliably.

In my case, the match came in at an estimated level of relationship as third to fifth cousin. Working with the administrator of that match at Family Tree DNA, we realized the connection was with my orphaned second great grandmother's brother Thomas—the very man who was listed with her in the 1870 census in Georgia.

Of course, we couldn't tell he was her brother, based simply on the 1870 census; that enumeration didn't provide any listing of relationships within a household. All we could tell from that record was that Mary "Reiney" and Thomas "Reiney" were both in the household of Charles Taliaferro.

It took going back to the 1860 census to find both Thomas and his baby sister Mary listed in the household of widow Mary Rainey.

After that point? The young Mary married Thomas Taliaferro Broyles and moved to his home in Tennessee, where she died before her record could even appear in the subsequent census. Her brother, eight years her senior, was married and living in Alabama—and then gone to Texas by the time of the 1880 census.

It turns out to be this Thomas whose descendant matches my autosomal test at Family Tree DNA.

While I've hoped for additional DNA indicators—like another female descendant willing to take the mtDNA test—an indicator such as this autosomal relationship is an encouraging additional vote of confidence for my theory that Mary Rainey was daughter of Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro Rainey, and thus part of the matriline which leads to Margaret Watts, mother of Jane Strother Lewis of colonial Virginia.

Insert above from the 1870 U.S. Census for Muscogee County in the state of Georgia courtesy

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Strother Mother

If you've been following along here at A Family Tapestry while I've been muddling through the puzzle of possible parentage of my orphaned second great grandmother, you may have been left with a question in the back of your mind. After all, we're seeking the mothers who people the matriline of Mary Rainey Broyles, and since my farthest removed opportunity to document her existence as I knew it was with her license to marry Thomas Taliaferro Broyles in 1871, everything beyond that roadblock really becomes conjecture. An educated guess, to be sure, but still nothing solidly documented.

So to arrive at Jane, wife of Thomas Lewis and daughter of William Strother of Stafford, Virginia, may seem exciting, but it's still a hypothesis.

Since we're comparing this genealogical paper trail with one other research tool, however, it is indeed good news to see I received an exact match to my mitochondrial DNA test which contained a surname matching a woman also figuring in my proposed matriline: Strother.

Despite the momentary glitch of finding my exact match's pedigree containing an error in the parentage of my Jane's sister Elizabeth, it appears we really are talking about sisters and not cousins or any more distant relationship. While this is good news, it is not the end of the line. It merely leads up to the nexus between my matriline and that of my exact match.

The person to whom the honor goes for being ancestral mother to both of us would be the mother of Jane and Elizabeth Strother. And as naming conventions in the western world would have it, that means the Strother mother actually was born with a name other than Strother.

It would be fitting, before moving on, to note just who that woman might have been. Thankfully, a number of references provide the information that William Strother, father of both Jane and Elizabeth, had as his wife a woman by the name of Margaret Watts, whom he married around 1720—according to one reference, before 26 March 1718. This Margaret was said to have been daughter of one Richard Watts.

So, in this pursuit of the woman who was my mother's mother's mother's (et cetera) mother, and the one filling that same role in my exact match's matriline, while we find the surname nexus at the appearance of the Strother sisters in our respective pedigrees, it was their mother who qualifies as our most recent matrilineal common ancestor.

If all the conjecturing which brought me back to Margaret Watts is correct, that means, without any mutations in our mitochondrial record from our current times back until Margaret Watts' birth in 1700 colonial Virginia, I have a three hundred year old genetic record within me that is exactly the same as one borne within the genes of a stranger with whom I apparently share no other relatives except this Strother bride and mother. That's a pretty far-reaching record.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

There's Always Going to be a Down Side

Admittedly, at first I jumped the gun. Looking at the pedigree chart for my—finally!—first real "exact match" from my mitochondrial DNA test, the minute I saw the name Elizabeth Strother, I knew we had a match. Why? Because there was an Elizabeth Strother, sister of the Jane Strother who was part of my matriline.

At least, it was part of my presumed matriline. The difficulty, as we've been discussing, is that right in the middle of my matrilineal ancestry is the roadblock of the unknown parentage of my orphaned second great grandmother.

We've already examined the possible lineage from the point of that orphan back through the next several generations, and why I think these are reasonable guesses. But when we get to the soon-to-become wife of Thomas Lewis, Jane Strother, we start running into problems.

First off, though some old recountings of the family genealogy state, almost in one breath, "Jane, daughter of William Strother of Stafford," there are some records which assign to him thirteen "blooming daughters," while other arguments imply he had absolutely none—or, perhaps, six.

Thankfully, the listing that allowed for a more modest count of six included both a Jane and an Elizabeth.

Besides that, depending on whose account one is reading, Jane's father, William, is one of a line of at least three, if not six, generations of men named William Strothers. Conveniently, each generation is numbered. The trick is to insure how far back any particular researcher decided to start his count of the Williams. One genealogy has my William identified as "William III." Another counts him as "William VI."

Let's take leave of our woes on that side of the family for a moment and look at the other side of the story: the pedigree chart provided by my exact match.

What I hadn't, at first, noticed when I spotted that Elizabeth Strother in my match's tree was that she had Elizabeth's parents listed not as William and Margaret, as I was showing, but as Francis Strother and Susannah Dabney. Understandably, for large families given to repeating the same favorite names from generation to generation, there would be more than one Elizabeth in the Strother generations. But I'm really not in the mood to celebrate that abundance just yet.

As it turns out, depending upon which old published genealogy one wishes to use as guide, there are helpful suggestions...or not.

For one thing, in support of a Francis Strother's very existence, there is mention of Jane's father William having a brother Francis. More to the point, that brother Francis did marry someone named Susannah Dabney.

Even more perilous to the survival of my presumed pedigree, that Francis and Susannah did have a daughter. And—surprise, surprise—that daughter's name was, indeed, Elizabeth.

Oh, groan.

Take heart, though, for in continuing the saga of that Elizabeth, it turns out she married someone named James Gaines. My match's pedigree indicated her Elizabeth Strother married a man by the name of John Frogg, just as I had had it in my own records. The only problem I had from that point onward was that my match's pedigree continued with a daughter for John and Elizabeth Frogg, when I only had two male descendants listed for that couple—male descendants, incidentally, who would never pass along that matrilineal heritage from my Jane's mother.

If you recall from the other day, that very John Frogg (or Frogge, as some records had it) was the one over which there were some documentation disputes, according to the national Daughters of the Revolution website. Still, even on their database, one of the descendants of this John and Elizabeth was listed as the Jane Frogg named by my match. And, just as my match had it in her tree, this DAR-verified Jane went on to marry a Virginia man named Manoah Corley.

So perhaps that "down side" I was concerned about adds up to nothing more than mis-attributed parentage of the Elizabeth Strother in my match's line. Still, to be quite sure I'm comparing the correct lines—after all, mine is a presumed line, owing to my second great grandmother's orphan status—I need to check every step of the way on both mine and my match's pedigree. This will take some additional digging to pull up as many documents as possible.


Monday, July 24, 2017

First, the Good News

It was rather deflating, after finally finding someone who qualified as an exact match to my mitochondrial DNA test, to realize that either her pedigree or mine—or worse, both—might have been wrong. I spent a good deal of time yesterday, sorting through the possibilities. Thankfully, once I came up for air, I felt like I could breathe a bit easier.

For one thing, I can see where some errors might have been perpetrated—something I'll cover tomorrow. For another, it seems we are in good company with our confusion over some members of the Strother family of eighteenth century Virginia. Thankfully, there are some points made by previous researchers to bolster my contentions and help set the record straight.

Before we get into that, though, I'm in desperate need of taking an inventory of reasons why this effort is worth the while. So let's take a look at the good side of the equation before we launch into the messy details.

First, let's consider what an mtDNA test can show us. Of course, it measures the "genetic distance" between two matches—for instance, this Strother descendant and myself—who both share a most recent common ancestor of a specific type. That type is limited to the matriline, the line moving back in time from my mother to her mother to her mother, in like manner back to the 1700s—and then, about-face, marching right back in time from that woman to her daughter to her daughter, all the way to the point of the person who is my match.

That we are an exact match means that this genealogical journey was made from me, all the way to that matrilineal ancestor and then back again to my match, without any genetic mutation in the specific material measured from our respective mitochondria.

Considering that, unlike my two thousand autosomal DNA matches, my mitochondrial DNA matches only number fifty eight, that's an awe-inspiringly limiting set of chances. In fact, of those fifty eight matches, I only have four who are exact matches. All the others have at least two or three mutations between me and any given match. To find one who is an exact match and actually has also posted a pedigree chart for our perusal is a rare—and long-awaited—occurrence.

In addition, this pedigree chart happens to include a surname shared in my tree. Unlike the hundreds of autosomal matches I've perused whose trees seem to recount ancestors from the opposite side of the world from my family, this one actually screams BINGO! Who could ask for more than that?

Of course, that one thing we could ask for would be a correct pedigree. And I can't exactly fault my match for that; perhaps the error is mine. Time to take out the magnifying glass and scrutinize my own work, as well as hers. And while I'm at it, time to pull out those dusty old records and see what additional documentation I can find to bolster the paper trail.

The best news of all, however, is that this is a quest to verify just who the parents were of a girl orphaned in Georgia at the age of eleven in the midst of a civil war. If I can demonstrate, on paper, the connection of my Mary Rainey Broyles to Jane Strother, wife of Thomas Lewis of eighteenth century Virginia—and then confirm that matriline via mtDNA results—I will have put to good use one of our most modern techniques to bolster our genealogical research.

But first, let's take a look at that other side of the story...

Above: "Reader with Magnifying Glass," 1895 oil on canvas by German Impressionist artist Leo Lesser Ury; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

What If . . .

What's with all the speculation?, you may be wondering as I puzzle out just who my orphaned second great grandmother's family might have been.

What if you're wrong?, the genealogist in you is certainly asking. After all, I have very little proof that my guesses are correct.

That, however, is the goal I'm after: to build a case through documentation that seeks to allay those concerns while demonstrating the possibility that my proposal could be credible.

A few years ago, in my DNA results was another mitochondrial "exact match" result belonged to an adoptee who turned out to be successful in figuring out who his birth parents were. He shared his search technique with me, one which is so bombastic and assuming as to make a trained genealogist shudder at the possibilities of error. The trick, my mystery cousin explained, was to build a private tree on and experiment with hunches—by entering possibilities to see what might trigger "hints" that led to viable material.

I am not attempting an approach as energetically radical as his, in this quest to determine which family my second great grandmother might have belonged to. But I do need to experiment with some possibilities using, at least, educated guesses. The reason: after bringing you up this matrilineal line of ascent all the way from Mary Rainey Broyles to Jane Strother, there is a second part to the story.

Yes, you guessed it: I have an exact mtDNA match with someone whose matriline includes a Strother mother. According to my records—yes, my records based on guesswork—this person's line includes Jane Strother's sister, Elizabeth Strother.

Sisters, that is, depending on whose accounting we choose to believe.

We've already found one old genealogy which stated that the Thomas Lewis who is presumed to be part of my orphaned second great grandmother's line married someone named "Jane, daughter of Wm. Strother, of Stafford county, Va."

That hint, as it turns out, is a trickier line than originally bargained for. The William Strother we are seeking would have been married to a woman named Margaret Watts. Depending on which genealogy publication you believe, though, William and Margaret had either "thirteen daughters" or what seems to read as none at all:
William VI, b. circa 1696; d. 1732; m. circa 1720, Margaret Watts, who m. (second) John Grant, leaving six daughters.

None, that is, if those six daughters were actually the descendants of Margaret and her second husband.

Meanwhile, best I can determine, our Jane Strother had a sister—well, at least according to some accounts—named Elizabeth, who married a Revolutionary War era man named John Frogg. That his entry in the roster of Patriots at the national Daughters of the American Revolution is in dispute makes me wonder whether the reports of his wife's name may also be suspect.

Of course, it would be this Elizabeth Strother to whom my exact match is linked. Therein lies the problem: just how do this Elizabeth and my Jane relate?

All this to say: while I've discovered an exact match through my mtDNA test possibly linking me to the Strother line, not only do I need to construct a proof argument for my orphaned second great grandmother's link to the Strother family, but I then have to sort out whether I have my Strothers lined up correctly, for my accounting does not reconcile with my match's pedigree.

Nothing is ever easy. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

It Pays to Have Connections

If it wasn't for one small detail concerning the woman whose parentage we're seeking, I might have experienced considerably more difficulty in accessing the information. As it is, in trying to piece together the matriline of an orphan—who just happened to be my second great grandmother—we're struggling with guesswork tangled up with lack of documentation. Seeking verification of genealogical details in the era of the 1700s and early 1800s is so different than experiences in researching our more recent history.

By the time we moved from my second great grandmother, Mary Rainey Broyles, to her mother Mary Taliaferro Rainey, to her grandmother Mary Gilmer Taliaferro, and then her great-grandmother Elizabeth Lewis Gilmer, we've arrived in the mid 1700s. Trying to determine the parents of a woman in that time frame might have been tricky; sometimes these people were mentioned by name, and sometimes they were nearly invisible.

In the case of Elizabeth Lewis, though, she had something going for her. After marrying her husband, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, she just so happened to give birth to a son who eventually went on to become governor of the state of Georgia. Some biographical sketches—though not all—of governor George Rockingham Gilmer include a line crediting Thomas and Elizabeth as his parents.

That portion of a lineage which fortuitously includes my (presumed) matriline helps bolster confidence that I'm on the right track. Besides, it elevates chances that the family's previous generations might have rubbed shoulders with all the right people, too. I could use a few more handy connections like that in this research project.

It certainly wasn't difficult, employing a Google search and some choice keywords, to locate public domain genealogies containing just the names I was seeking. For Elizabeth Lewis, the current stepping-off point on this matrilineal pursuit, it was easy to find her place in two volumes (apparently using the same sources, which does make me hesitate) mentioning her parents' names.

From William Terrell Lewis' 1892 Genealogy of the Lewis Family in America, we see Elizabeth mentioned, along with her twelve siblings and the note that she was born in 1765 and married to "Thos. M. Gilmer." Turning to the preceding page, it reveals her father: Thomas Lewis, a surveyor in colonial Augusta County, Virginia. His wife, Elizabeth's mother, was mentioned as "Jane, daughter of Wm. Strother, of Stafford County."

This is supported in another volume of similar name but slightly later date of publication (1906), Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families, where we find one of those name-dropping entries, thanks to Elizabeth's relationship as mother of the governor of Georgia. For our purposes, that provides us with the feature of Elizabeth's mother as Jane Strother, daughter of William Strother of Stafford County, Virginia.

While this second volume also detailed Elizabeth's father Thomas Lewis' heritage—son of John Lewis and Margaret Lynn and grandson of Andrew Lewis and Mary Calahan—we have to remember that is not our goal in this pursuit.

Jane Strother, however, is. And, as it turns out as I surveyed the surnames in my mtDNA match's pedigree, that was exactly the point at which I needed to focus my attention: to the Strother family. 

Above: My second great grandmother's matriline now reaches to her second great grandmother, Jane Strother, daughter of William Strother and wife of Thomas Lewis. Graphic layout of the pedigree courtesy of

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Different Type of Research

Moving back into the eighteenth century brings us to a much different style of genealogical research. Long gone, by now, are those government-issued birth, marriage, and death records which researchers of twentieth century ancestry have come to rely on. In their place, hopefully, are church records of baptisms and marriages, and court records of wills, guardianships and probate.

Entering, stage left on this scene of earlier American history, also comes another resource. Whether insufferable temptation to commit the genealogical sin of copying someone else's research or boon to those whose desperation is owing to lack of any other options, those hundred-year-old genealogies of early American families sit silently on the shelves of our most-revered genealogical libraries and await our response. Use them? Or not?

I caved. Admittedly, while authors of the genealogical publications of the late 1800s and early 1900s may have been hampered by the vastly restricted access to resources—so unlike what we enjoy today, with digitized records and instantaneous access online—they were also likely to have been prepared with the scholarly discipline of the academically trained.

I promise myself to use these books—for the time, at least—as trailblazer material, and to follow up on my own by seeking out any documentation to confirm what those closer to the matter may have "known" through hearsay from their elder relatives.

On the matrilineal trail for the mothers' line of my orphaned second great grandmother—even that being an exercise in educated guesses—we've so far come from Mary Rainey, wife of Thomas Broyles, to her presumed mother, Mary Taliaferro Rainey, to her mother, Mary Meriwether Gilmer, wife of Warren (or possibly Warner) Taliaferro.

Let's pause to consider the treasure trove we've now stumbled upon, by virtue of associating with those two surnames, Meriwether and Gilmer. As has been observed by other researchers—including some who self-published their own pedigrees in the time-honored tradition of local and state genealogical societies of the past—those surnames have been intertwined over the generations since, undoubtedly, colonial times.

Thus, there are a number of books that can be consulted, as I found out by going to the book section of and just searching for one of those surnames, Gilmer. While we always need to be cautious of the possibility that authors back then were just as liable to make a mistake as any careful research might still do today, it was informative to see what could be found about the woman we left off with yesterday in the pursuit of my second great grandmother's matriline.

If Mary Meriwether Gilmer was indeed her grandmother, who was her great grandmother? Right away, in Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, a book containing much detail about the extended Gilmer family, we see that "Warren Taliaferro...married Mary M. Gilmer, daughter of Thomas M. Gilmer."

Another book, The Gilmers in America, provides a glimpse of the family constellation of that Thomas M. Gilmer:
The eldest son, who, on the death of his father [Peachy Ridgway Gilmer], became the head of the Gilmer family according to the old English method of reckoning, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, took upon himself the responsibilities of matrimony before he had attained his majority, and a year after this serious venture he displayed his independence of character and his self-reliance by removing with his young wife, Elizabeth Lewis, to Georgia and settling on Broad River which was then (about 1783) a far frontier.

Thus we are supplied with another mother in this matrilineal pursuit: Mary Meriwether Gilmer Taliaferro's mother was the former Elizabeth Lewis. Another book of that era, The Meriwethers and Their Connections also mentions that relationship.

With that, we can now extend my orphaned second great grandmother's matriline another generation, for the purposes of the mitochondrial DNA test results I'm seeking to confirm with a corollary genealogical paper trail. So, we move from my second great grandmother, Mary Rainey, to Mary Taliaferro, to Mary Gilmer, and now to Elizabeth Lewis.

And with that connection to the Lewis family—another colonial American family intermarried with several others—we'll certainly encounter more published assistance in tracing this line.

Above: Beginning with my orphaned second great grandmother, Mary E. W. Rainey, we now can trace her matriline through to her own great grandmother, Elizabeth Lewis. Graphic layout of the pedigree courtesy of


Thursday, July 20, 2017

"My Daughter Mary Elizabeth"

In trying to find the parents of a woman born at the turn of that other century—yes, we're going back nearly to the year 1800—there are no handy birth certificates to consult. Thankfully, for those with enough property to make the difference, there are wills.

In the trek backwards through the generations from my orphaned second great grandmother, Mary Rainey Broyles, we've learned that she was named after her own mother, Mary, wife of Thomas Firth Rainey. Fortunately, a marriage certificate for Thomas and the elder Mary showed that woman's maiden name to be Taliaferro.

Researching this particular Mary Taliaferro Rainey brings us back to the early 1800s in both Georgia and South Carolina, where sometime before her 1818 marriage to Thomas Rainey, she found herself an orphan—if, that is, I have the correct information for her. Thanks to a number of genealogies and other records published a hundred years ago, her parentage has been provided where source documents are otherwise lacking. The claim is that Mary's father was Warren Taliaferro and her mother was Mary Meriwether Gilmer. Yes, another Mary in the matriline.

In Warren Taliaferro's will, drawn up in October, 1815, at his residence in the Pendleton District of South Carolina, he named two of his sons—Charles and Zachariah—and two daughters. Fortunately, with the statement, "my daughters Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro and Lucy Gilmore Taliaferro," our Mary—the one who eventually married Thomas Rainey in 1818—was one of the children named.

Of course, nothing is ever easy. Though I was, thanks to this document, armed with the names of Mary's two brothers and one other sister, that did not match the record filed with the court in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, in 1818. That document named brother-in-law Peachy R. Gilmer as guardian of the by-then deceased Warren Taliaferro's minor children. And yes, you guessed it: Mary Taliaferro was not among the ones named.

Thankfully, though, the dates tell the story: the guardianship papers were filed in Oglethorpe County on September 24, 1818. Checking that marriage document filed in the same county in Georgia for Mary, it was dated June 9 of that same year, providing the reason for Mary's exclusion from the guardianship papers—and for a marriage taking place in Georgia for the daughter of a South Carolina resident.

Adding yet another presumption to this recounting of the generations, we now have Mary Taliaferro Rainey's parents listed as Warren Taliaferro and Mary Meriwether Gilmer. This, incidentally, provides an explanation for the relationship to the man at whose home my second great grandmother and her brother found themselves staying by the time of the 1870 census, for if her mother was daughter of Warren Taliaferro, that meant the Charles Taliaferro at whose home she was staying was her maternal uncle.

Since the purpose of this pursuit is to follow the matriline from my orphaned second great grandmother backwards in time, our next goal is to push back one more generation on Mary's mother's side. Thankfully, the Gilmer line has been well documented in a number of published genealogies (not that that doesn't preclude the necessity of proving the line for myself). Tomorrow, we'll explore the parentage of Mary Meriwether Gilmer, wife of Warren Taliaferro and maternal grandmother of my orphaned second great grandmother.

Above: Too many Marys make the narrative confusing. Here is a snippet from the pedigree chart, showing my orphaned second great grandmother, Mary E. W. Rainey Broyles, linked to her presumed mother, Mary E. Taliaferro Rainey, and then to her parents, Warren Taliaferro and Mary Meriwether Gilmer. Graphic layout of the data courtesy of

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

In Pursuit of the Matriline

A person like me could get ecstatic over receiving news that I had an exact match on my mitochondrial DNA test. After all, the one big roadblock to my past, at least on my matriline, is that my second great grandmother was an orphan. For those of her descendants who might have known her, the woman's memory was a dim recollection. After all, she died when her surviving children were aged five and three.

Nevertheless, based on conjecture which I believe I have a thorough argument to support, I have constructed a hypothetical matrilineal ascent. Any daughter of a daughter of a daughter (well, you get the idea) of any woman on that line—at least, if my hypothesis was correct—could very well show up as an exact match to my mtDNA results. If, of course, that woman chose to undergo her own full sequence mtDNA test.

However, the one single match that I've received from someone who wasn't an adoptee himself came from a woman whose tree, while containing surnames I could claim for my own pedigree, didn't have much more than that in agreement with mine.
Before I can state my case on my orphaned second great grandmother using my mtDNA results, it would help to lay out the details. So, starting with the Charles Taliaferro household I mentioned yesterday in which we found my second great grandmother—listed as Mary "Reiney"—in the 1870 census, let's see what else can be found for her.

Because she was listed as only nineteen years of age in that census, our only other possibility for finding her in census records was in the 1860 census; the 1850 census would predate her. And though I knew her married name, by the time of the 1880 census, she was no longer alive.

Fortunately, though her maiden name had been presented in so many phonetic permutations in various documents, I did locate a possible candidate for the correct enumeration entry. This one was for a Mary "Raney," aged nine, living in the household of a woman whose name was also Mary Raney in the now-non-existent Campbell County, Georgia. She was apparently a widow. Along with the youngest child, who was presumably our Mary, there was the reassuring presence of someone named Thomas, who was almost exactly ten years younger than the Thomas who had also been listed alongside our Mary in the Taliaferro household in the 1870 census.

If I was going to trace my matriline, though, it would help to know the name of this elder Mary's husband. Checking the 1850 census yielded a possible candidate: Thomas F. Rainey. With this, I found marriage information dated June 9, 1818, in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, showing a Thomas F. Rainey whose bride was Mary E. "Talafero."

Recalling the original household in which I first found my second great grandmother, Mary Rainey—headed by a man named Charles Taliaferro—this "Talafero" caught my eye. Being a surname which is not at all pronounced like it reads, it is understandably misspelled.

The next question, of course, becomes: did the household in which the younger Mary and her (presumed) brother Thomas live in 1870 belong to a relative of their now-deceased mother? Whether or not that was so, for the pursuit of my matriline, I still needed to trace this next generation to see who the mother was of this older Mary Rainey.

Insert above from the 1860 U.S. Census for Campbell County in the state of Georgia courtesy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

More Trouble on the Matriline

One would think getting an exact match on my mitochondrial DNA test would be a good thing. And it is—only, now that I'm looking at it more closely, I realize proving my point may take more effort than originally planned.

The trick is this: my mother's maternal grandmother once mentioned that her mother had been adopted. Instant roadblock on the matriline, for those of us, years later, wishing to trace that heritage.

The way it happened was this: as a young child, my mother had to spend a year with her grandparents in Florida while her own parents took her sister to Johns Hopkins hospital for some medical issues. Of course, my mom grew fairly close to this grandmother during that time, and all through her life, cherished this woman's memory.

One of the stories my mom told me about this visit was that she once asked her grandmother about her mother. Her grandmother, Sarah Ann Broyles, had been born in Tennessee in 1873, and by the time my mother was living with her in the 1930s, she was living with her husband, Rupert Charles McClellan, in Tampa, Florida. My mother, like most curious kids, must have wanted to know something more about this family with whom she'd be spending a school year while her own family was so far away.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a reply to my mother's question. Sarah Broyles McClellan simply responded that her mother had been an orphan, and there wasn't much more that she knew about the woman.

There was more to the story. Sarah's mother had actually died when Sarah was only three years old. Of course she wouldn't remember much about her mother. However, I could find out more about her now, from my vantage point of having access to so many digitized records. Even with that paper trail, though, there were gaps in what could be discovered.

The one thing I knew was Sarah's mother was named Mary Rainey. Or Raney. Or some phonetic variation on that theme. She had married Thomas Taliaferro Broyles in 1871, and lived at his home in Tennessee from that point until her death in 1877.

Mary, herself, wasn't from Tennessee, as I discovered, but from Georgia. The only marriage record I could find with names matching the couple's was for a January 2, 1871, ceremony held in Muscogee. Fortunately—well, at least if I have the right person—that was barely after the conclusion of a census year.

I found a likely candidate in the 1870 census for the city of Muscogee. A nineteen year old listed as Mary Reiney was in the household of a dry goods merchant named Charles Taliaferro. Of course, that was the last census taken without any listing of relationships within the household, so I have no way to determine from that record how, if at all, Mary was related to Charles. All I know is that her occupation was listed as "domestic."

There was one other detail which helped—or, who knows, perhaps wouldn't help. There was one more "Reiney" listed in the same household: a twenty seven year old man named Thomas. It would be helpful, of course, if he was Mary's brother, but again, the census provided no such information. Since he was born in South Carolina while she was a Georgia native, the record almost gave the sense of the two Reineys being a couple rather than brother or sister, but it still was a lead to follow up on. He was listed as serving as a clerk for the store, but it seemed rather strange that a mere employee would actually be living with the man who employed him.

Whatever the situation, if this was my Mary, it seemed possible that she was an orphan at that point, since she—and perhaps her brother as well—were living with someone other than their parents.

All this would have been a mere academic exploration, if it were not for one detail: a while back, I received notice that I had an exact match on my mtDNA test. I had already received two since taking the test back in the spring of 2014, but each of them was an adoptee, himself. This new match, however, was not in that situation. If I could figure out how I connected with my new match, perhaps this would confirm my guesses as to my own adopted second great grandmother.

Things didn't go so swimmingly, however, when I looked at my match's pedigree chart. Right away, I spotted a matching surname—well, at least if my guess about my own line was correct—but when I took a closer look at my match's tree, the names of the matching couple were the same, but the parentage and the dates didn't align. With guesses on my part, and possible errors on my match's part as well, this could be a messy process to confirm.

Insert above from the 1870 U.S. Census for Muscogee County in the state of Georgia courtesy

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Luddite's Love Affair With Paper

Talking about the genealogy files on my dinosaur computer yesterday reminded me of one thing: the battle of pen-and-paper versus technology.

Those who have fully embraced their new digital lives have shed their paper files with near-delirious abandon. Some nearly gloat over dumping recycling all those boxes and boxes of carefully researched details of their family trees.

I am not one of those on the cutting edge. Besides loving to get my hands on a beautifully crafted piece of stationary, I have other reasons for considering my paper trail to be my backup plan.

The main reason has to do with the very thing I went through last week, as I had to flip the switch on my dinosaur computer. No matter how thorough we think we are when shifting from an old operating system to a newer one, somehow things get overlooked, and we have to go back to retrieve something.

Granted, running on Windows XP was a rather extreme example, and it's about time I stepped into the new century. However, in my defense, with my newer computer, I made the jump nearly straight from the XP clunker to Windows 10, with only a brief stop at Windows 7. It just so happened that, right after the purchase, the newer Windows product was launched—so why join the snivelers mourning the loss of the program about which they once complained bitterly? I wasted no time and jumped right into the newer one.

On the other hand, I had set up a rather extensive filing system for my old computer, including a great system for handling those myriad email queries—both incoming and outgoing—for my then-current genealogy projects.

To think that, once on a computer system, that liberates me to toss all previous records seems absurd. Yes, I know we can back up our computers. Yes, I realize things can be stored on the cloud. But should those things electronically go "poof!" at some point, then where is the backup?

I love paper. Paper has stood us in good stead ever since it arrived in the western world from its Chinese developers in the eleventh century. It's not going away any time soon—at least, not around my office.

In contrast, how long have computers been around? Besides which, just think of how often those software programs are changed. It is becoming near impossible to even run my ancient Family Tree Maker software. Unless I invested a great deal of effort regularly over the years to update those database programs, eventually they were not accessible. Paper, on the other hand, may be cumbersome to store, but once I put it in its storage container, it will still be there—probably longer than I will.

I put a great deal of thought into developing my filing system on my old computer, back in those years when it was a new system. Of course, now, that means very little, if I can't access it any more.

This, of course, gives me pause as I consider the storage boxes and file cabinets still holding information gleaned from decades long gone. Somehow, I'm hoping there will be a third option—a hybrid between extreme technology lover and Luddite paper lugger. Consolidation will probably be step one, as there is certainly a percentage of material that repeats itself in the years I've aggregated records. Drawing up a synopsis of material—--being concise to cut the clutter—will likely be another approach.

But taking the hard line of tossing everything? I can't see myself going there. I need something more tangible. Something that won't, oops, disappear into the ether with the click of a wrong button. If I could aggregate everything I know about my family's history into a book—something I can touch as well as see—then I think I'd be the happiest about the finished product of a pursuit that never does, in reality, get done.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Checking in With the Dinosaur

Every now and then, I have to do it: fire up my old desktop computer, the one still running clunky old Windows XP, the one carrying the precious cargo of my original family tree efforts dating over twenty years back.

This time, the reason I had to do it had nothing to do with genealogy. I had to access some old files which I apparently had never transferred over to the new, sleek and shiny computer. I think we were looking for a receipt with a code number we needed for our business. Talk about awkward.

Once it was fired up, though, I couldn't just shut it back down again. Wouldn't want to waste the opportunity to harvest a few more names and dates from that monstrosity of a family tree. So I spent the day, working on my mother-in-law's Flowers line until it was all transferred. Then I took a look at another of her major lines—Snider in Ohio, Snyder for those of the clan who moved west to Iowa and then Minnesota—and started the process all over again.

The point to all this is to reconcile those old records gathered, for the most part, in that pre-Internet era for genealogical research—a time when dial up for almost made the research process a farce, except considering the six to eight weeks threat of having to wait for snail mail verification.

So, now that all the old data has been entered into the new system—well, at least all the descendants on the Flowers line—my next step has been to return to Ancestry and look for documents and hints. That's when the data really gets worked over. And for good cause, too. Not only was there a lot of work yet to be done on that old database, but so many digitized documents have become available since then. Many of the lines I had followed, back when I was using that old computer, had to be left off at the time of the 1880 census, because back then, that was all that could be accessed on FamilySearch. Just think how many generations of descendants since then I'm now able to trace.

That, basically, has been my research marching orders for the last two weeks, and the numbers reflect that spurt of activity. In my mother-in-law's tree, I now have 12,147 names, an increase over the last two weeks of 318 people. I get an eerie feeling when I realize that that was the exact same amount—318 people—I had increased the data in the previous two week period. I promise I didn't plan this.

In comparison, on my own mother's tree—where I did try to put in a lot of work, honest!—the count is now 10,819, an increase of 260 names. I'm trying to focus there on entire branches of her tree which hadn't been updated in a while, and fortunately, I've been harvesting loads of material to add to those lines—particularly our McClellan line in Florida.

There's even been a bit of work on our family's two paternal lines, though admittedly, it is a much slower process, owing to the roadblocks I can't seem to overcome. For my father-in-law's Irish line, I'm now at 1,261 names. Admittedly, that's a meager thirteen name increase over the past two weeks, but at least it's something. Credit for this progress goes mostly to the newer digitized documents added at regarding descendants of auxiliary lines from our Tully roots.

And even in my own father's line—the son of the mystery man who just showed up in New York City and claimed he was an orphan—I was able to add a few names. There, the count is currently at 422, thanks to the slow and tedious addition of twelve more family members. But, hey: progress is progress, especially when it is hard earned.

As far as all our DNA matches at the various testing companies we've utilized, I'm beginning to wish for another sale. Sales always seem to pump the numbers gratifyingly, although that comes with the patience of having to wait the six to eight weeks for those tests to be processed. I'm certainly looking forward to that Father's Day Sale bulge to make it through the work flow pipeline.

Right now, my husband's DNA matches stand at 1,442 at Family Tree DNA, 304 at AncestryDNA, and 1,244 at 23andMe. Strangely, that means he hasn't gotten any new matches at FTDNA in ten days and only nine before that point, that his Ancestry count is up by only six matches, and in the ever-strange retrograde world of 23andMe, his count decreased, once again, by twelve matches. I guess he's been disinherited.

My own DNA matches have fared slightly better. At FTDNA, I have 2,207. Ancestry has me at 654. And 23andMe shows 1,194. That means an increase of twenty one at FTDNA and nineteen at AncestryDNA. And not to go against the flow, I managed to lose a few matches at 23andMe, as well—four.

Though the number of matches may seem gratifying, the connections are still mostly lost upon me. I did manage to confirm one match with a fellow 23andMe customer and I'm still trying to figure out a match at FTDNA. In the meantime, thanks to manipulating the data at GedMatch, my eyes were opened to the possibility that a group of matches I have at AncestryDNA may actually be through my father's line, not my mother's line, where I had been trying unsuccessfully to force the data to fit. I still need to connect with that researcher, and it will take a lot of explaining to state my case, given my father's difficult tree.

One last task on the DNA side of things is to document a discovery made, thanks to the mitochondrial DNA test I had taken at FTDNA. Finally...finally, I received an exact match to this matrilineal test, which was encouraging, because that is the line with a case of unproven parentage. I've made several inferences based on circumstantial details, and of course, I think I'm right in how I reconstructed that matriline. But it certainly helps to have the science to back up my assumptions. Now, on to polish up that proof argument.

And so, another two weeks of work under the belt. Bit by bit, I keep telling myself. And it does make a difference, even if most weeks progress much slower than this one, begun by firing up my old dinosaur computer. Opening up that old treasure trove certainly did help to jump start my progress for this cycle.

Above: "Hip, Hip, Hurrah!" 1888 oil on canvas by Danish artist Peder Severin Krøyer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Man's Search for Meaning

It was not hard at all to decide which of our literally hundreds of books to pull down from the shelf for this month's read. The result came about from a convergence of timely thoughts and experiences, and made it so I couldn't just not read it.

Actually, the book didn't originally come from my bookshelves. It came—as I realized when I opened the cover and a bookmark from November 16, 2006, fell into my lap—from my mother's bookshelves; I had grabbed it then as I ran out her door. The reason for the precise date was that it was stamped on the paper, which in reality was a stand-by boarding pass for my family's return home after attending to my comatose mom in the hospital subsequent to the car wreck that broke her neck.

Such are the types of incidents which prompt people to search for meaning in life.

Apparently, the drive to find meaning in all that upheaval was not as powerful as I had hoped, for once on the plane bound for home, I read only a few pages, then realized my mind was racing far too much to absorb what someone else was saying to me.

So, I set it aside. For, like, ten years.

Fast forward to this spring. A local Italian heritage association had asked me to come speak to their members about starting a family history project. Their director explained: the group had just conducted a survey, seeking to discover what was uppermost in their members' minds for the upcoming year's program content. Highest on the list were two responses. One—of course! These are Italian-Americans we're talking about—was to revive the skills necessary for re-creating those delicious traditional Italian recipes. The other? Learning how to research members' own family history. And not just the names and dates; they wanted to preserve the stories.

Tasked with telling this group everything they need to know about genealogical research in one hour, I began thinking a lot about this notion of preserving our heritage. It's fairly obvious that there is a surging interest in exploring one's roots lately. Not only have online sites like or seen demand for their services, but programming about genealogy seems to be everywhere, from television series to YouTube channels to podcasts to blogs.

Of course, that prompted a question in my mind: why? Why this increased interest in genealogy? Is it simply because these organizations have concocted the magic sauce for irresistibleness? I doubt it. Nor do I think it is all on account of people "always wanting to" research their family tree, just because they watched Roots back in the 1970s.

When I talk to people who want to learn how to start their own research, they usually have one of two reasons to embark on their project. One is inspired by the soon arrival of a grandchild, or other such motivation to pass along to descendants information about their extended family. The other reason—the flip side of this same coin—generally focuses on discovering our "roots."

In thinking about these two typical responses to the question of why people embark on genealogical projects, I realized something. Each of these—and they are really two different ways of looking at the same motivation—can be reduced down to one essence. The pursuit of our family's stories, the quest for our roots, are really a way for us to find meaning in life—in both our ancestors' lives and our own.

Of course, letting those thoughts inspire me to grab a book like Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning turned out to be roughly akin to choosing a conference breakout session based on only the title, not the course description. The book, originally published in 1959 by this Viennese psychotherapist, was birthed through the indescribably painful experience he endured as a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp. It is a short but heavy read. Yet priceless, as a book to be experienced.

Continued existence—no matter how destitute, according to Frankl and supported by his wartime experience—can only be sustained by meaning.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

It was the eloquence of Frankl's brief narrative that demonstrated his point. Most of the hundred pages which comprise the first part of the book involves a recounting of the author's wartime experience. While no explanation can lead us to grasp the day in, day out agony of life in those concentration camps, Frankl was able to provide illustrations of how his realizations helped him cope with the last vestige of freedom still available to him: the ability to choose his response to the injustices he faced daily.

Those were the examples which supported Frankl's development of the "third Viennese school of psychoanalysis" which he called logotherapy. A discussion of the therapy's tenets is briefly provided in the second part of the book.

Since my original educational background is in rehab therapy, I found it informative to review the concepts, juxtaposed with the author's recounting of his dreadful personal experience, although I imagine the general reader might not share my interest there. Still, reading the first part of the book makes me realize how empty and insipid our concerns of modern-day life have turned, now that we are so far removed from the deprivation and desperation of those war-torn years. The profound insights yielded by the author's intense suffering demonstrate his contention that even the worst negative aspects of life can produce meaning, if that is what a person must endure.

Of course, while our ancestors' stories may have demonstrated survival in the face of such dire straits, it certainly doesn't infer that we must suffer for our "art" of genealogy. And yet, I believe it is that same drive—a quest to bestow meaning upon our life experiences—that motivates people to embark on the exploration of their family history today. Researching our own history gives us a way to connect with our past in the stories of the adversities our ancestors overcame, and provides a promise of a future as we bring those stories forward to pass them along to our children and grandchildren.


Friday, July 14, 2017

A Society for Societies

Having discussed local genealogical societies all this week, and the changing roles they play in advancing family history research, I couldn't finish off the series without mentioning a key player in building community. For genealogical societies in the U.S., that would be the Federation of Genealogical Societies, established in 1976 to "link the genealogical community."

Our local society is a member organization of FGS, and we have been grateful for their assistance in the various administrative tasks we've taken on as we streamline and bring our group into the twenty first century. As we modernize—and, along with that effort, grow our ranks—we've certainly benefited from sage advice received by FGS, but we've by no means exhausted all the avenues for assistance.

Of course, the one area I'm most jealous about is their upcoming annual conference. An event which roves from host city to host city, this year, the FGS gathering will convene in Pittsburgh. Granted, I'm in California and the host city is at the far western reaches of a state which, at its other end, shoulders east coast locations. But distance seldom stops me when reasons to attend outweigh the objections.

When a good friend from our society mentioned she planned on going, I became more than jealous. I really wanted to attend. After all, this national conference not only includes the usual genealogical fare for research—several tracks, in fact, covering everything from immigrants to military records to taxes—but features an introductory "Societies Day" reserved for topics on organizing and operating a genealogical society. Topics for that day alone made attendance seem worthwhile.

Unfortunately, as the early-bird deadline loomed, I heard that hotel blocks were booked solid—that it was difficult to find any available rooms in hotels anywhere near the conference venue.  For someone toying with the idea of flying in, catching a hotel shuttle and never venturing beyond the walls of the conference center, this did not sound like a car-rental-free possibility. (Another block of rooms was subsequently opened up for conference attendees, but I didn't find out in time for the discounted rate.)

In the end, I chickened. Didn't pursue the idea. I'll keep an eye out for other bloggers who attend and write about the conference in their posts. (Are any of you still out there?)

I can always be an early-bird next year. After all, the roving annual conference will be moving on from Pittsburgh. At some point, the event will occur closer to my state. Or perhaps come up with an enticing location. Like research magnet Fort Wayne and the Allen County Public Library. Now, there's a conference possibility for 2018!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Citizen Specialist

When it comes to examining just what our genealogical societies should be doing, in serving both members and community, we have to remember that, depending on the type of member, we may have a very different take on what that answer should be. The answer may well hinge on the viewpoint of each specific member.

As I've visited other local genealogical societies and talked with their board members, I've realized that some societies are vastly different than others. This is not necessarily owing solely to regional differences—size of city, geographic location, or even demographic differences. There is one other point that has come up in these conversations.

When we assume, as I mentioned yesterday, that societies likely have some similar organizational goals—preserving records, for instance, or educating members on genealogical research techniques—we are also presuming an underlying situation that those members being served are one specific type of constituency: avocational genealogists.

Those who join genealogical societies because they've "always wanted to do that" are usually self-identifying as novices who desire training to learn the basics. Yet not all people who join our societies are pursuing genealogical research as a hobby. It is this mix of those who "do" genealogy for their own personal satisfaction and those who engage in research as a business venture that will alter the characteristics of a local society.

I once visited a county genealogical society which had an enviable position. Though housed in a city much smaller than my own, this society boasted their own library, an active and hard-working board, and sponsorship of an impressive annual seminar—not to mention, they sported a membership count much larger than my local group's.

While talking to one of the board members about what their society has achieved, with my inside voice, I was silently berating my own organization for not accomplishing as much. That brow-beating came to a sudden halt, though, when I heard this person mention that, among those many members in their society, they had thirteen professional genealogists.

Thirteen? We have one.

In one way, I was jealous, of course. But in another way, I suddenly became aware of a dynamic I hadn't thought of before: the fact that each person researching his or her genealogy is doing so for an entirely different reason. When a majority of the persons coming to the membership table of a society are seeking help as a beginner, it creates an organization vastly different from that in which several professionals are gathering together.

Not that I wish to disparage amateur genealogists. In fact, I prefer the designation, "avocational." In many fields considered to be the domain of the professional, we are seeing room being made for those with a keen interest in the subject, though not the credentials considered necessary for a professional. In some fields, such as astronomy or ornithology, contributions being made by the "non-professional" are being referred to as having come from "citizen scientists."

And so it may well be with genealogy, as we see the spread of resources and training empowering the avocational to hone their skills. We've gone beyond the customary seminars and conferences to include learning options such as week-long institutes, year-long certificate programs and the like. A vast array of webinars now allow avocational and professional genealogists alike to pick up skills in specialized subtopics (like genetic genealogy) or regions of research (like eastern Europe).

It goes without saying that each member brings to our local society's table skills and interests that will influence the course of that society's goals and offerings. Taken together, those members' arrays contribute toward the mosaic that represents what our society will become for our community. Much as we are influenced by our community's socio-economic demographics, we are also influenced by the goals of our members. And a key factor swaying the outcome for societies may well be the seriousness of those stepping up to join our efforts.

While beginners bring the enthusiasm that sometimes provides the shot in the arm so needed by organizations, their membership needs—and ability to participate in building the organization—are vastly different than those of a professional genealogist. And yet, once again, there is that third segment of membership: the avocational genealogist who may well be honing skills to the point of becoming genealogy's equivalent of the citizen scientist.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Are Genealogical Societies Evolving?

Just as each generation may have differing reasons for joining a genealogical society, our organizations, themselves, are surely changing. While I don't have the resources to go back and read the minutes from local meetings held fifty years ago—in some locales, there wasn't even any society in existence fifty years ago—I have a hunch the genealogical societies of our decade are somewhat different than back then. It would be helpful to inform ourselves of just how organizational dynamics have changed.

I know from our local society's experiences that, years ago, top goals were to preserve records of genealogical significance, provide adequate resources for research in our own community, educate newcomers in proper research techniques, and raise funds for our organization by producing books to sell. Other than in giving up the tactic of publishing books to sell, those overarching goals haven't changed all that much over the decades.

What has changed, however, is the methodology in which we've achieved those goals. With the advent of technology, we approach these tasks much differently. As national and international concerns dominate the field—some of them for-profit—it seems to render some societies' original goals obsolete. After all, who can compete with the professional operations which can roll into town, slam dunk a digitization process, and subsequently make their results available online to all willing to pay the entrance fee, unhindered by geographic or travel limitations?

There are, however, gaping holes left in which the local concerns may still find themselves offering a vital service. The genealogical giants cannot become all things to all people—at least not yet. Local organizations still are the boots on the ground whose voice provides the answers regarding locally-sourced information.

But does that local army of volunteer genealogists still exist to put in the hours to do the work? And do local society members even want to serve in that capacity? Answering queries for ancestor whereabouts may require utilizing a website to gather, and email know-how to answer now, whereas in that proverbial "fifty years ago," the question may have arrived with the afternoon mail delivery. But that is not the real story about change and societies. The question is: Do today's society volunteers even care to spend their time doing obituary look-ups for strangers?

Perhaps the more pertinent question, when puzzling over dwindling society membership rolls, is not whether we can coax the full-time-employed younger generation to join us in our fifty-year-old routine, but whether they care to spend their limited free time doing what genealogical societies are still defining as their core missions.

Perhaps the avocational—and professional—genealogists of today have a different vision of what a genealogical society should look like.

Above: "In the store, when there is no fishing," 1882 oil on canvas by Danish painter Peder Severin Krøyer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

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