Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Always Better with Company

Genealogical research may seem like a solitary pursuit. After all, our research roots grew out of the pleasures of settling in at remote archives to scour seldom-used source documents for clues about our own ancestors. Even the modern-day researcher is more likely to be found hunkered down in the glow of a laptop at 2 a.m. while finally catching up with that elusive ancestor online. We seldom think of genealogy as a team sport.

Yet I recall the extensive delight of enjoying the quest with a fellow researcher—someone whom I've never met in person, but with whom I share a common third great-grandmother and a desire to know more about that ancestor's family. I've mentioned one of my favorite research-partner experiences before, in which I became acquainted with a University of Michigan history professor who just happened to be related to my mother-in-law's Gordon line; we spent years exchanging emails as together we built up an extended family tree for that surname.

I think of that experience often, as I now reach out to connect with a DNA match on a different family line. There are, indeed, researchers out there who are just as keen on finding family history answers as we are—with the added bonus of being related to us.

Sometimes, those newfound connections are not just a sharing of a mutual surname, but can also form around a common research goal. In this current case—in which I am trying to push back a generation from my father-in-law's Kelly and Falvey lines in County Kerry—I have discovered another genealogy blogger who is examining a situation much the same as ours. Not only that, but she is a blogger with whom I've exchanged notes for quite some time already.

Better than that, her current research challenge runs almost parallel to ours. Though she is in Ireland while I am in the United States, we are both puzzling over Irish-ancestry DNA matches who currently live in New Zealand. And she is employing much the same technique I am opting to try—only as she is doing it so much more elegantly, I can only refer you to her recent blog posts so you can see how she designed her research process for yourself.

When I tell you her name, you may recall my mentioning her before. She is Dara McGivern of Black Raven Genealogy, the very writer who showed me that, despite the dearth of Irish records, it is possible to reconstruct usable information on Irish ancestors by even unexpected resources—such as using registrations for dog licenses. Unsolvable problems can generate innovative responses.

Dara's current research project may, if she finds enough resources, yield her another generation beyond where she is currently stuck with a particular surname. As it happens, a DNA match has turned up, sharing that same surname in her family history—yet not the same given names as what Dara shows in her family line. Just as I am doing, she is meticulously tracing back the DNA match's family line from current day in New Zealand to origins in Ireland.

Because Dara has a number of family members who have also tested their DNA, she is comparing her family's data with that of the New Zealand match and related lines. She clearly outlines her process in her blog, with the introduction in Part I, and her most recent explanation in Part II. Click through that second post and scroll down the entry to see how she laid out the data in table form; it helps to keep all the details straight by using such a visual device to diagram what is known, so far.

All that to say, augmenting the helpfulness of seeing how another researcher is handling the same quandary is the opportunity to connect with that person to compare notes as the process is unfolding. Too often we limit ourselves by assuming genealogy is a solitary task. While yes, in many ways it is, it is also a pursuit made more enjoyable when we can share our conquests with others we meet along the same path. As we bounce ideas off each other along the way, we sharpen each other's approach and, hopefully, can hasten progress toward a useful conclusion for each of us.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Why a Reasonably Exhaustive Search
will not Kill Us

Monday morning: time for a research team pep talk. It's been two weeks since it first occurred to me that I can combine clues from family trees of triangulated DNA matches to smash through my husband's brick wall ancestor roadblock in County Kerry, Ireland. And yet, though the records have been handily brought to me through the technological wizardry of digitization, search capabilities in the face of abysmal handwriting styles have been a reminder of point one of the Genealogical Proof Standard: the "reasonably exhaustive search."

Whenever I have attended genealogical conferences and heard a speaker launch into details of applying the "reasonably exhaustive search" for a case study, I get exhausted just listening to the recounting of the effort. And yet, as Robert Raymond of FamilySearch pointed out, "The GPS does not call for exhaustion, it calls for reasonableness."

Granted, not everyone is precisely clear on what constitutes a "reasonably exhaustive search," given our current research capabilities, as James Tanner of Genealogy's Star discussed nearly a decade ago. Some researchers, such as Michael Hait, advocate expanding one's resources by exploring additional finding aids and pertinent repositories related to the research question at hand. Some, like Melissa Johnson, remind us that what might seem like the overkill of "exhaustive" may indeed prevent us from falling short of finding the correct answer to our research question.

Still, no matter what it is, "exhaustive" makes me...well...exhausted. This is where the grunt work of research resides. It takes work to find some answers. But the real question is: c'mon, now, do we really want to find the answer?

Of course it's yes. That's what kept us going up to this point. Why stop now?

If we have made it past those first few generations, pinpointing names and dates and places for a geometrically-expanding cast of players in our family, it will not kill us to continue the process (even though it feels like it will). Just think of this challenge as a concentrated dose of everything that brought us this far.

We are motivated by finding answers to our family history questions. Moving further down this research path may challenge us to develop new skills, but the tension of mounting the learning curve propels us closer to succeeding in overcoming the challenge. Much like the "no pain, no gain" of those who glory in physical training, this quest becomes the mental calisthenics to put our family tree in tip-top shape.

Research pep talks may help us re-invigorate our will to succeed at mounting that brick wall problem, but sometimes, we need a bit more. That's where the next step comes in: gaining a bit of encouragement from finding others along the same path. Benefiting from the company of others dealing with the same issue brings its own kind of motivation. We'll visit another researcher, tomorrow, who is tackling much the same problem as what our Kelly-Falvey research roadblock may require of us.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Counting on Connecting

The one good thing about maintaining a genealogy blog is that it can attract interested cousins. "Cousin bait," we call it among our fellow genea-bloggers: one of the main reasons we make our research conquests—and foibles—so public. We hope to attract like-minded distant cousins to the joint pursuit of our ancestors.

Thus, with the shifting goals of my current research pursuits, the more I connect to one branch of the extended family, the less I end up working on another branch. But I'm okay with that. Connecting with family is important. We need to share what we've found, and collaborating with cousins can accelerate the search.

Though I had intended to spend the last two weeks zeroing in on consolidating two trees on my husband's side into one—the better to link to DNA matches, now that we can tag these in our Ancestry account—I also ended up making the acquaintance of some DNA matches on my own maternal side, so my progress count will reflect those small victories as well as the duplication of records moved from my father-in-law's tree to that of my mother-in-law.

It is hers which will become my husband's all-in-one tree for DNA purposes, so while the numbers seem inflated, it really doesn't represent any new progress on her lines. The 224-name increase is really just that many people copied from my father-in-law's tree to hers. With that almost done—I have another two weeks of double-checking work on that project ahead of me still—her tree now stands at 19,076 names.

While I've been working on the same exercise on my own side of the family over the past month, this time the increase wasn't quite so pronounced. I added forty six names to my mother's tree, which now stands at 22,429 people, but it was mostly because of emailed inquiries I've received from cousins who found me via this blog. As I go back to review those lines, I discover updated information which allows me to add more names and documentation.

If we look at the trees I've maintained for both my father and my father-in-law—the ones now being folded into their respective wives' trees—you can tell by the numbers whose tree actually gained new individuals. On my dad's tree, which has only 715 people, I added not one new person in the last two weeks. On my father-in-law's tree, the one for which I'm currently grappling with the mystery of the far-flung descendants of his Falvey ancestry in County Kerry, I've added seventy eight new names in the past two weeks. Looking at his tree by itself, it now contains 1,812 individuals. And I still don't know how to connect them with Ireland; I've just found more descendants claiming that same mystery line.

The best part about this scenario, though, is the fact that there are other cousins out there, yearning to connect as they research their roots. Some of them have been found by genetic genealogy connections, since we have tested at all five of the current DNA companies. Some of them have wandered by, thanks to the airing of popular television series such as CeCe Moore's The Genetic Detective, which pique people's interest in finding their own roots. But some of the ones who have connected have been distant cousins I never even knew, who also are keen to find more about their family's story. Connecting with them has helped multiply our efforts to gather those details.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Brick Wall Ancestors
and Invisible Gorillas

While struggling over the lack of leads to further identify the roots of my father-in-law's great-grandmother, out of the blue, I remembered a book. Not having anything to do with that Falvey surname in Ireland which currently has me stumped, it's a book by two psychology professors about how much our minds miss of even the things that should seem the most obvious. Aptly named, it's The Invisible Gorilla, brought to us through the studies and reflections of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

I've written about the book before. You may have even tested out the video I mentioned back then, which goes along with the subject of the book.

But how quickly we forget. This weekend, after reflecting on how much of a struggle it has been this past week to find any documentation for that one family line I've been seeking in County Kerry, that reminder came back to slap me in the face. Sometimes, things are so obvious, we fail to see them.

Here are a few research tendencies I'm taking to heart—and hopefully avoiding in this upcoming search.

First, remember that, no matter how much we might think we don't, we carry forward in our research those assumptions which have been invisibly embedded in our own outlook on life. If we can't imagine a life without computers, or mobile phones, or—forget mentioning those modern conveniences—even think about a life without antibiotics or refrigerators, how can we think like our ancestors? How could we accurately calculate their most likely plan of action when confronted with impossible situations (like the Great Famine)? Forget that, how could we guess how their everyday choices compound to back them into unexpected corners?

Second, just like subjects in car wrecks might not have been able to spot the very visible threats coming straight at them, we may well be staring straight at the document which holds the answers to the research questions which have us struggling. Could it be that taking a second look at all those documents which didn't help before actually lead to an answer which was always in plain sight, yet unseen?

Third, the activities of daily life can camouflage the unobvious details which are the very clues we are trying to find. Perhaps we can actually find our answers embedded within the constant drone of life's same old same old.

These are just a few thoughts running through my mind as I struggle to see my way clear of this brick wall research problem. They may or may not yield remarkable results—if anything new at all. But in thinking of these things, I am reminded to at least slow down and take my time reviewing what I already know. If nothing else, it encourages me to not consider it a waste of time to look at the same documents twice. Maybe I can see that invisible gorilla detail on the second visit.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Deciphering the Illegible Hand

The bane of the serious family history researcher may well be the oft-encountered illegible hand. While I understand nineteenth century clerics did not perform their record-keeping duties with twenty first century genealogists in mind, I do wish they had taken a bit more care in attending to their daily routine.

In searching page by page through centuries-old baptismal records this week, I've discovered one thing about that Falvey surname I've been seeking: there are more ways to write it than I would ever have thought.

From uncompleted loops for the "a" to overzealous flourishes for the capital "F," I've witnessed several transcription traps which have beguiled their unsuspecting indexers to misread what I suspected I was looking for. All I wanted to do this week was uncover a few baptismal records for mothers whose maiden name was Falvey. And I run into records like this:

Guess how it was indexed? Not as Falvey, I assure you.

After a while, I guess we researchers get a sixth sense of how others might misread handwriting, so I succumbed to taking a peek at search results which I otherwise might not have pursued. The example above was actually indexed as "Lealvey," though I could see how it might have been mistaken for "Hulsey." I saw another Falvey entry listed as "Furrey." Cute.

Exposure to great variety in handwriting samples may strengthen a researcher's resistance to succumbing to the first guess offered. I've seen my fair share of capital Fs which look more like they could be read as "H." Likewise, I can understand why someone might have read the leading letter in that example above as an overzealous L. The search for correct record matches goes downhill from handwriting's slippery slope. That's why I take to searching, page by page, through handwritten records. Especially old ones.

What opens up new venues for searching is coupling the surname Falvey with that of the other half of the marriage party. In the case above, my research partner and I have been examining the family connections of a DNA match who recently shared his tree. It includes the County Kerry surname Cullinane. While that, too, has its spelling pitfalls, chances are much better that the most egregious of indexing errors there would be the dropping of the final "e" or the misreading of that first "u."

Even so, I've taken to reading all three, five, or more pages of search results, as well, hovering over each choice to allow the rest of the entry to pop up for review. Any misreading which seems likely to correctly be rendered with the surnames I'm seeking gets a second glance. It's worth the effort, judging by the number of records I'm finally finding.

Once those records are located, on to the next step: looking for the telltale baptismal sponsors who, remember, should be either siblings or in-laws of the parents in those old Irish Catholic records. That is the point at which we can build a hypothetical family tree for the parents and associated family members—more than we've been able to do so far with the limited records we've already found.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Starting a Tree From the First Branch

If you have no clues about your family's whereabouts amidst all history's piles of paper, where do you start? Well, if you have DNA matches, you can begin with what others know about the family.

That is exactly what I've begun doing this week. And thankfully, I'm not going it alone; I have a fellow Falvey researcher who is just as interested in solving this County Kerry puzzle as I am. Only drawback: she is halfway around the world from me. As she has put it in emails to me before: "I am in your future."

Step one for this project was to set up a sandbox of sorts, where we can experiment without tipping the universe onto a wrong trajectory. I use this technique for many family history projects I am researching, much like an adoptee might do to search for birth parents.

My preferred spot for this tree-building work is on Ancestry.com, where I set up a private, unsearchable tree. That way, no one viewing any outlandish guesses I include in my tree will be tempted to copy the gibberish, wholesale. More importantly, because the tree won't show up in other people's searches, I won't even receive any earnest pleas to share from someone who thought my wrong pedigree entry was a long-lost cousin.

Step two was to invite my research partner to join the project. Ancestry makes the process easy by hosting the email invitations, but just in case, I also send out a personal email to let the invitee know what's about to happen.

Normally, when I invite others to view my trees, I set their participation level at "guest." The reason for that designation is that I don't want others to come in and change any details in my work. If there is an error, I prefer to be notified by email or message. I can always check it out myself and correct any mistaken entries. I also default to keeping entries of living people private, mainly because family trees often contain more than one branch, and relatives from one side of a very extensive family tree may not care to have their personal data reviewed by cousins of in-laws they don't even know.

For this project, it will be different. We will work on this project as a collaborative effort—and one which reaches backwards in time, not into our future. Thus, other than information provided for living DNA cousins, privacy will be impacted only to the extent of how much can be given to those who are already among the "dearly departed." To achieve this working status, the invitation to participate will necessarily be as an "editor," according to Ancestry's system.

While we are only two people working on this Falvey project at the start, we are already involving six DNA tests, as each of us administers three tests which connect to this family line. Furthermore, we've already spotted fairly close cousin matches and can see from their pedigree charts how these specific cousins fit into the larger Falvey picture. Our only drawback is that we can't quite make the jump from our respective "new worlds" to the homeland in County Kerry.

We already know, however, that these Falvey roots grow back to County Kerry. Our family's Johanna Falvey Kelly's obituary mentioned as much. Surname distribution maps, albeit from later decades than when the Kelly family emigrated, visually demonstrate the prevalence of the Falvey surname in that the western Irish peninsula, and County Kerry in general.

The question, however, is whether those in our families who sport those Falvey genes can work together to figure out just who the most recent common Falvey ancestral couple was.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

It's All Latin to Me

While I may have sung my fair share of masses in Latin, don't think that means I've got the language covered when it comes to deciphering old Catholic marriage or baptismal records. In fact, between the inevitable chicken scratch resulting from usage of quill pens and the rush of clerics catching up on tardy record keeping, what little I can decipher of centuries-old Latin-based ecclesiastical records is enough of a research handicap. Add in my dearth of knowledge about such foreign conventions as proper use of declensions, and those little victories of finding what looks like the right name turn into research fizzles.

Take this foray into Catholic parish records for County Kerry, Ireland, in hopes of determining the parents of Johanna Falvey, wife of John Kelly. Since I had found their marriage record in the Kilcummin parish, and two baptismal records in neighboring Killeentierna parish, one might consider it reasonable to expect those parents' own baptisms to show up in similar locality, twenty to thirty years earlier.

So when I find a baptismal record for someone containing what I assume would be a Latin-styled version of the name Johanna—right location and close enough on the year, too—I perk up. This 1827 record—hey, what's a year off, among friends?—from Kilcummin parish for the baptism of one Joannes Falvey could have put me within grasp of the parents' names. But something was off: the name didn't end with quite the right letter.

As it turns out, Latin is not quite as conveniently arranged as, say, Spanish, where a name ending in "o" corresponds to the masculine form and a name ending in "a" indicates the feminine form. Depending on the exact use of the name—whether it is, say, just the name or a variation on that format to show relationships—the same person's name can take on several forms.

I already had an inkling that that might be so, despite knowing next to nothing about Latin. I did, however, check out those assumptions. The indexed name in the Ancestry record, as it turned out, had been entered as "Joanens" while, upon looking at the record itself, I thought it was actually written "Joannes."

Just to make sure, I took that "Joanens" to Google Translate and put it through its paces there, searching also for any resources to untangle those declension conventions so foreign to an English speaker like me. As I had thought, Joannes turned out to be masculine form for the name we know as John—not Johanna. Not only that, but that particular form is labeled as the third declension of the Latin form of the name John.

If all this talk about declensions is sounding all Greek, er, Latin to you, there is this handy guide explaining the morphing forms of Latin names as we encounter them in the chicken scratch of old church records. There, in plain English, the article explains the Latin name forms you'll encounter in church records—nominative versus genative, for instance. I found it helpful and confirming, despite being disappointed that I hadn't, after all, found my Johanna Falvey's birth record.

Thankfully, research problems can be approached from more than one angle, and to connect my Johanna Falvey of County Kerry to her parents, I also have the option of working with several DNA matches who trace back to that same root family.

While I'm examining the records from the right time frame and vicinity of Johanna's childhood, I'm also working on building a separate tree to tie together the various Falvey lines of my husband's DNA matches. A task better suited to operating in the background, building possible pedigrees may lack the sureness of producing the precise document, but can still point a researcher in the right direction. And until I can find the right document, it may be the only option open at the moment.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Reading a Different Kind of Record

While I struggle with the sheer grunt work of reading the chicken scratch handwritten entries in parish baptismal records in Killeentierna and Kilcummin, there is another way to approach the Irish research challenge: find DNA matches whose roots grow in the same direction.

When I got the original note, nearly four years ago, confirming my husband had a match with someone sharing his second great-grandmother's maiden name, neither I nor that DNA match had any idea of just how, exactly, the two of them connected. The exciting news was that this researcher was from New Zealand, confirming at least one of the obituaries written for Johanna Falvey's passing in Fort Wayne in 1903. How Johanna connected to this DNA match's ancestor is still unclear, except for one thing: we'll need to stretch yet another generation or two to locate the most recent common ancestor.


There is still good news on the horizon—maybe. Between then and now, there have been additional matches showing at almost all the DNA testing sites I use, including a handful of other matches who live in New Zealand. While using these matches' family trees is not always helpful—each researcher seems to think the line originates with a different Falvey ancestor—at least we have one accurate detail we can be assured of: the count of centiMorgans connecting us. Now, that is truly a different kind of record—and a reliable alternative.

While I continue to flip those digital pages in the scanned baptismal records from County Kerry, scouring the entries for names of sponsors as well as mothers' maiden names, I'll be attempting a second research strategy: connecting with each of these matches and reviewing what documentation can be found to support their trees. Perhaps in the records of those matches' ancestors we can find the supporting actors who will tie the family connections together in a more reliable way.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Stabs in the Genealogical Darkness

We may say we are taking a stab in the dark when we are making a wild guess about something, but when the search for Irish ancestors leaves us little other choice, we may as well build strategies to evaluate those wild lunges into the dearth of records.

As it turns out for my father-in-law's Irish brick wall Kelly and Falvey ancestors in County Kerry, it might turn out that we will have plenty of material to stab at: the parish where I found their daughter Mary baptised has records still in existence dating back well before the 1850s. Talk about an unexpected gift. I had been manually searching, page by page, from the date of the earlier Mary Kelly's baptism in 1864 to see if I could find any entries in which her parents, John and Johanna, had served as sponsors for a relative's baptism—and the records kept going and going.

Back through the years I kept paging, with no results for that search last week. And then another strategy occurred to me. Why not just search for potential marriages or baptisms in County Kerry linking the surnames of Mary Kelly's sponsors with either Kelly or Falvey?

The difficulty in trying to locate our target parents' names in the entries for sponsors, as I had been trying last week, is that digitized records will assist in locating a child's name or the parents' names, but there is no search option to locate the sponsors' names. Of course, according to Irish traditions, it could generally be assumed that the sponsors for a baptism were either siblings or in-laws to the parents—but what if that tradition didn't hold true in our case? Such assumptions could certainly lead toward incorrect conclusions.

Despite that, on the chance that our couple were just average common people after all, I tried seeing what other records could be found, combining the names of Mary's parents with the surname of each sponsor, in turn. I started out with the Fleming surname—that surname which showed up in one form or another for both of the baptisms found for a Mary, daughter of John Kelly and Johanna Falvey. Because I wanted to avoid as many false leads as possible, I chose to start first with combining that Fleming sponsor surname with Johanna's maiden name, using the record search at Ancestry.com.

That was when I discovered two things. First was that the records for the Falvey family were more plentiful in a neighboring parish to Killeentierna called Kilcummin, the same place where—if I have the right couple—John Kelly and Johanna Falvey were married. Second was that those records reached back to at least the 1830s.

Of course, there is no guarantee that I'm on the right track. But since I really have no other streamlined, sure-fire options, I may as well stay the course with this new experiment. At the very least, I can create a database of all the marriage and baptismal connections I can find between the Fleming, Falvey, and Kelly families in that earlier time frame. Combining that sort of stab in the dark with another tried approach—using the naming traditions adhered to in those earlier years in Ireland—may yield some promising possibilities.

Perhaps. Or otherwise, I'll just have a rather complete listing of all the Flemings and Falveys who once lived in a small cranny of western Ireland.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Muscle Memory and the Paper Chase

I've often wondered why, when I first began my personal genealogical research, I could remember every twist and turn in the unfolding branches of that growing family tree, but now—several years later—I can't seem to recall even a small portion of the names in that collection. I tell myself to consider the immensity of such a demand; after all, I now have upwards of twenty thousand individuals in each of my own and my husband's family trees. However, something recently occurred which convinced me there may be another reason for that brain fade phenomenon.

I've lately been called back to the early pages of the pedigree chart for the Kelly branch of my father-in-law's heritage. Duplicating the work I put into building that family tree so long ago is not wasted effort, though. While for DNA-matching purposes I need to transfer records from my father-in-law's pedigree to a new, repurposed tree for my husband's entire family, I am discovering new details and documents that need to be added to the family's records. Think of this paper chase as a self-designed genealogy do-over.

As I've been moving, person by person, through those Kelly ancestors and their kin, I've noticed something I attribute to muscle memory. It's not unlike the kind of experience people feel when picking up a hobby they haven't tried in a long time. Like the oft-repeated saying about learning how to ride a bike, revisiting certain activities after a long absence seems to erase the gap of inactivity between first doing a repetitive task and resuming the practice.

Can researching one's ancestors create the same kind of muscle memory as, say, learning how to juggle—or ride a bike, even? After all, muscle memory is formed in doing everyday activities which improve with practice and eventually become automatic.

I am beginning to wonder if that is so. In the case of my paper chase to find the documents on my father-in-law's Kelly ancestors, I originally started the search in Fort Wayne, city of the family's newly-immigrant status in 1870. I mulled over burial records, cranked through microfilm of church records, wandered through cemeteries to photograph headstones, and drove through town to see the location of each of the family's residences over the decades.

In other words, by the time I finished researching the Kelly family, I knew their presence in Fort Wayne. I had been there. Read the newspaper articles. Walked the streets where their hundred year old houses once stood. I did it all in person. Their life details became a part of me by shadowing their footsteps.

It's been a long time since I revisited some of that research work. But once I re-checked each element this past week to see whether any details needed to be updated, the act of simply reviewing these records brought back a strange flood of memory. Not quite déjà vu, but close enough to feel as if I were walking those pathways again.

There is something we are missing by relying solely upon digitized record collections to assemble the record of our ancestry. In the ease of searching online from our own comfortable homes, we surely can access more records in less time than any genealogists of prior ages ever were able to secure. We are in an unparalleled golden age of research. And yet, we are missing something: the fruit of our hands-on efforts to trace our heritage.

Muscle memory, of course, is a misnomer. It is not just muscles which "remember" the activities we learn to do. A fascinating article which provides a brief overview of observations on brain function during and after learning new motor-skill tasks emphasizes that muscle memory is a very different sort of memory than, say, memorizing facts. Our brain works differently when it is learning by doing.

When our family walked the streets of Fort Wayne in search of our history, we were not just gathering facts to memorize. The learning we were getting was learning by doing. We didn't just learn that young mother Catherine Kelly Stevens died an untimely death in 1884; we found her headstone placed, not in a grave designated for the Stevens family, but in the family plot of her father's family—revealing the suddenness of the tragedy which befell a young father unprepared for such a turn of events. We saw the grayness of the simple cabins where the extended family lived, so close to the railroad tracks which provided their lifelong livelihood—and, in some cases, the source of their untimely deaths.

That is the muscle memory way to learn family history. When you can go and do the research in person, you come away with a very different type of life story than you can in a computer-assisted document search. Sure, you can use the one to assist you in completing the other, but one without the other yields, in my estimation, an incomplete picture. Just going back to review the documents I gleaned from those visits evokes the experience for me all over again. There is no doubt that is the reason I can so strongly recall details about the families for whom I completed those hands-on research investigations at the beginning. They are not just facts in my head; they were life stories whose very trail I traced with my own eyes, hands and feet.

I heartily urge researchers to not stop short, having found a way to digitally construct that paper trail of your ancestors. Don't be satisfied with merely cataloging names, dates, and places. Go walk the paths your ancestors once walked. Feel what it is like to have been there. When your great-greats get into your muscle memory, their memory will live on in an entirely different way than it could when the only token of their existence was merely a name typed on a piece of paper. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Trouble With Strategies

When it comes to tackling a research puzzle, it seems helpful to develop a strategy to test any hypothesis. It's essential to have a plan for how to test possible resources or relationships. The caveat, though, is to make sure your research strategy doesn't back you into a corner. Some corners land far from any possible answers. A researcher needs to be able to spot a false lead and know when to abandon those trails which lead nowhere.

In my case, pulling up the baptismal records for children of John Kelly and Johanna Falvey, I wondered whether my research idea was leading me nowhere, indeed. The thought was that, if godparents listed for a child's baptism, in the Irish tradition, were always either siblings of the parents, or their in-laws, one would expect a reciprocating arrangement: you stand in as sponsor for my baby, and I'll do the same for you—or your sibling.

Thus, it would seem reasonable that a researcher could ghost a family tree, just by looking at the sponsors for each baptism listed with the right parents' surnames. Likewise, by seeking any sponsors who were named either John Kelly or Johanna Falvey, it would likewise lead us to candidates for their family trees.

Only problem: of the nine years of baptismal records that I've scoured, so far, in the parish where John and Johanna had two children baptised, I haven't spotted their names showing as sponsors even once. What was up with that? They were present for baptisms in Killeentierna in County Kerry for one daughter's baptism in 1864, and the other in 1867. Did they not take on any community responsibilities even during the three year interval between those two births?

That was when I realized the glitch in my research thinking: I assumed that, back in those "good ol' fashioned" days, our ancestors never moved from town to town. We think they always stayed put in the same village where their grandparents grew up—and their grandparents before them.

That, possibly, is not so. Either that, or I have been tracking the information on two different sets of parents who, coincidentally, have the exact same names—and gave the same name to their daughter.

Here's what got me thinking. Take a look at the column headed "Domicile" in the entries below.

Our John Kelly and Johanna Falvey were listed with their daughter Mary on 25 September 1864 in this list of baptisms. Notice the listing for their domicile: Currow.

Now, fast forward to 1867, when the other Mary is baptised on March 24. One peek at that entry can tell you that the Kelly family did not live in Currow in 1867; they were listed as being from Barnfield.

Currow, I assumed, would be the name of their townland—at least, that is, in 1864. However, looking on this extensive list of townlands in County Kerry, I didn't see any entry for such a name. Nor did I find one for Barnfield—which, to me, sounded suspiciously more English than Irish.

Could it have been possible that our Kelly family had moved from one place to another in that three year interval? Or not even been a member of that parish where their daughter was baptised? Perhaps that was why I didn't see either of the parents' names pop up as sponsors for any other children in the parish.

Though it would seem reasonable to rely first on Irish records for direction on Irish matters, I was reassured when I simply went to Google Maps and entered the term, "Currow, County Kerry, Ireland." There actually was, as it turned out, a place called Currow in County Kerry.

Then, I tried my hand at another familiar resource: I googled that name and found some information on Wikipedia. Currow—at least, according to that resource—is a "rural village" in County Kerry, and apparently contains some townlands of its own. One of those townlands was called by that suspiciously English-sounding name Barnfield—at least during the era of the Tithe Applotment Books.

So, to say the Kelly family lived in Barnfield was simply a way to explain in what part of Currow the family once lived. And Barnfield—plus the surrounding Currow—was part of the Catholic parish of Killeentierna, exactly as the baptismal record showed. Theoretically, then, that meant I wouldn't have to look to another parish to find the remainder of baptismal records for the Kelly children, nor to find John or Johanna listed as a sponsor for their siblings' children. But why weren't they there in the records?

This is where it sometimes becomes necessary to re-evaluate a research strategy to see whether continuing to trudge onward on that same path will yield the answers necessary for the core mission: to construct the family constellation for John's Kelly family and Johanna's Falvey family. I'll keep at it a bit more to see what I can find by turning five to ten more pages of baptismal records, but it will be important to develop an alternate search plan, as well.

After all, we already know from Johanna's obituary many years later, that she had "several sisters" who still lived in County Kerry. Surely, at least one of those sisters had children who should have been listed in that baptismal catalog.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Borrowing a Page from
the Southern Research Playbook

A few years ago, I took a week-long class at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy on researching southern American roots. There, Anne Gillespie Mitchell introduced the class to the concept of "kin" and how flipping through the ten pages preceding and following your target ancestor's census entry may reveal folks who actually are relatives.

I thought, in my current research dilemma, I could borrow that page from her playbook and apply it to my quest to find Falvey kin in Ireland. And why not? Ireland is, though rather large, an island, increasing the chances of inter-marriage among residents of limited geographic areas. If I found representatives of the Fleming and O'Brien families standing in for solemn occasions with the Kelly family, the reverse would also be conceivable: that Johanna Falvey or her husband John Kelly would be listed as sponsors for Fleming baptisms, for instance.

With that thought, I was off searching through the ten pages before and after the two baptismal records I had spotted. The result: while I found plenty of entries for Fleming family members and a very few Kelly entries, for the baptismal pages between the birth of the older Mary Kelly in 1864 and the younger one in 1867, I didn't see any entries where John Kelly or Johanna Falvey stood as sponsors for anyone else's children.

Where were they? Did they not participate in their community?

And that, perhaps, was the key to their absence: perhaps they did not live permanently in this community. There was, after all, one additional column in the baptismal entry book used by this County Kerry parish where I found John and Johanna Kelly mentioned as parents: the listing for "domicile." After all, in each of the two instances where I did find this couple named, their place of residence was listed differently: "Currow" in 1864 and "Barnfield" in 1867. How far apart were these two location?

If John and Johanna moved about frequently, it might do us good to familiarize ourselves with the location of the places where we found them. Perhaps there was a reason why I couldn't find connections between this couple and others in their community: it was no longer theirs.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Sponsors: Siblings and In-Laws, Oh My!

How to find the specific, correct Kelly in Ireland? Now, that is the question we are grappling with this week. Thankfully, in the midst of all that bad research news about destroyed records in Ireland, there are a few useful clues to help press the brick walls farther back in time.

Though we are stuck with the puzzle of the family of a particular John Kelly who, at one time, lived in County Kerry, thanks to some other details about his family constellation, we have been able to find some baptismal listings for his family. We already know his wife Johanna was at one time a Falvey. Though we can't find any baptismal record in County Kerry—yet—for their oldest son Timothy in 1860, nor even their daughter Catherine in 1862, we did locate two records for a daughter named Mary.

It's those two baptismal documents we need to look at more closely today. While we already know the date of the baptism and the names of the parents, what we want to check today is the name of each sponsor. This, too, is listed on the baptismal record.

Very easily, for the first Mary Kelly, we can see that, standing alongside her parents on September 25, 1864, were James and Margaret Fleming.

Looking at the second Mary's baptismal record on March 24, 1867, we can see the names John Fleming and Mary O'Brien.

While that news may not sound helpful—after all, none of the godparents had the surname Kelly or Falvey—there may be a pattern here which we will find useful.

It was thanks to a post by blogger Kat on Bantry to Ballyhea that I found out about a useful article at Ireland Reaching Out on "Traditional Irish Naming Patterns." Now, if you—like Kat might have done at first (and so did I)—saw that title and thought, "yeah, yeah, so what else is new?" then you set yourself up to miss an important detail. Not only did the article discuss the naming patterns we all are familiar with already, but, as Kat pointed out, it also included a pertinent detail about selecting sponsors for baptisms.

Which is what we are here to muddle over right now.

The specific discussion of interest can only be found by scrolling far down the article to the point labeled Sponsors/Godparents. Here, as Kat already pointed out, the "specific godparent convention" indicated that every godparent was "either a sibling or a sibling-in-law of one of the child's parents." Thus, by process of elimination, "surnames that do not match the parents' surnames are in-laws."

So there we have it. Those Flemings mentioned in the two baptismal records are either John's in-laws or Johanna's. And that Mary O'Brien? Same thing goes for her. The only question is about the James listed with Margaret Fleming. Since such church records were supposed to list women by their maiden names, we can assume that Margaret was sister to James Fleming—or at least a female member of a related Fleming family.

Though we still don't know which side of the family to sort these in-laws into, we at least have the clue that, whoever John Kelly and Johanna Falvey were, Fleming and O'Brien were related to one or another side of that married couple.

After finding which surnames were associated to John and Johanna through their daughter's baptismal records, our next task is to see if either John Kelly or Johanna Falvey were listed in other families' baptismal records, as well. In other words, for which nieces or nephews did John or Johanna stand in as sponsors? By finding the answer to that question, we may be able to extend out the lines of this family constellation a bit further.

Above: Sponsors from the baptismal entries for Mary Kelly, daughter of John Kelly and Johanna Falvey, as listed following the 1864 baptism and the 1867 baptism; images courtesy Ancestry.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Raised in the U.S.A. —
but Born in Ireland

One useful fact about researching the history of immigrant families is that those individuals likely have not one but two sets of paper trails to consult about their past. While everything from their arrival in the new land to their final breath will be catalogued in records kept by their adopted country, the documents verifying their early years are somewhere out there in the repositories of their native land.

So it is with the oldest children of John Kelly and his wife, Johanna Falvey of County Kerry, Ireland. Even their date of arrival in the United States can be pinpointed by the birth dates of their children: some time between the arrival of their daughter Mary Ann in 1867 and the birth of their son Patrick in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in mid-July, 1869.

That leaves us with the potential of three birth records for the family back in County Kerry. Their oldest son, Timothy, was born some time in 1860, although we don't have a more specific date. Their daughter Catherine arrived in 1862—and documents at her untimely death pinned her birthday as May 25. Our third clue is the 1867 birth of daughter Mary Ann—her death certificate filling out that detail as March 20, 1867.

Besides those three clues, the gap between Catherine's birth and that of her younger sister infers that there may have been another child born—and possibly also died—in the midst of those five years.

We also have a possible date range—although quite wide—for seeking the marriage record for John Kelly and Johanna Falvey: anything from the beginning of 1860 to earlier years. Given Johanna's stated year of birth—1826, according to her death certificate—she could have been married much sooner than 1860, when she would have been about thirty four years of age.

And so we set to work, seeking birth or wedding records in the whole of County Kerry mixing the surname Kelly with the somewhat less common name Falvey. Fortunately, computer-assisted searches make the process a bit less cumbersome than it was when I actually conducted such a search through the microfilmed church records in Ireland a few years ago.

Even computerized searches can miss documents, though. Depending on how thoroughly the filming and the indexing processes are done, there can be gaps. Or names and numbers can be misread. Or ancestors could have moved from one location to another. Or church records could have been misplaced or even destroyed. This family was, after all, Catholic in an era when Catholicism still was not the most favored sect.

And yet, though there doesn't seem to be any reasonable candidate for the report of Timothy Kelly's birth—at least, not with the right parents listed—we find a baptismal record for his younger sister Mary Kelly. In fact, there are two records for a child of John Kelly and Johanna Falvey with that name—one in 1864 and another in 1867—tending to support my conjecture of a lost child between daughter Catherine and the 1867 arrival of Mary Ann.

What is fortunate about the church records is that each baptismal entry includes not only the maiden name for the mother—fortunate for us while we are looking at Kelly births in Ireland—but also the names of the "sponsors" who have agreed to serve as godparents. As we'll see tomorrow, selecting those sponsors was not simply a matter of asking a very important question of any good friend, but delineated to select specific individuals to fulfill that potential function.

For those of us trying to infer who our brick wall ancestors might have been related to, that comes as very good news. And for those of us fortunate to have an as-yet unexplained DNA match to someone still up the line from that paper trail's known ancestral lines, it may lead to further clues.

Above: From Catholic Parish Records in Killeentierna, County Kerry, Ireland, showing the March 24, 1867, baptismal entry for Mary Kelly, daughter of John Kelly and "Johana" Falvey; image courtesy Ancestry.com.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Starting With What we Know

For immigrants from Ireland, United States records often provide only the most generic of details about their place of origin. Thus, to start on this journey to uncover more information on our Johanna Falvey Kelly means we will start with very little. Furthermore, we begin with the handicap of one of the most common Irish names for Johanna's husband: John Kelly. To somehow connect each of them to a specific spot on the Irish map seems a daunting task at the outset.

Still, the principle always is: start with what we know. And what we start with, in this case, is the end of the story for both John and Johanna.

Actually, we can begin our chase beyond that point. We can start in even more recent times, with the death certificates of their three children who lived to adulthood—and who lived until well into the 1900s, when death records began recording useful information such as names of parents. Though the step may seem simple, we need to confirm that we are indeed searching for the roots of the right maiden name for Johanna.

John and Johanna had five children that we know of, three of whom lived well into adulthood and died in the 1900s: their daughter Mary Ann, who married Patrick Phillips; their second-born son Patrick; and their youngest child, John J. Kelly. Of these three Kelly children, only Mary Ann's death certificate lists "unknown" for mother's maiden name—no small surprise, considering Mary Ann's daughter Grace, who was born the same year Johanna died, served as informant.

Both Patrick's and John's death certificates include their mother's maiden name. In Patrick's case, the listing was spelled Falvey, and in John's case, it was rendered Falvy—but no matter; it gives the sense of what we need to search for.

And yet, if only those death certificates could have been a bit more specific about Johanna's origin. All that was written was that she came from Ireland.

Local newspapers could possibly provide a second source of information, of course—but considering our general caution over what newspapers report, any such mention would itself likely need further corroboration.

For instance, for John Kelly's funeral notice, Fort Wayne's Weekly Sentinel for March 2, 1892, provided all sorts of information about his health—that he died of "old age and la grippe"—and about his work experience. We learn that he "was formerly one of the most faithful blacksmiths at the Pittsburg shops" who several years before had had to "quit work and live retired." And yet, when it came to where he was born, all the newspaper could offer was that he was a native of Ireland. Surely someone knew a bit more about that detail.

Eleven years later, when it came time for Johanna's last breath, the art of writing obituaries had advanced enough to at least include names of the bereaved. And yet, even that was limited to immediate family. More maddeningly, reports varied, depending on which newspaper ran the story—and even which edition of the newspaper carried the report.

We have, for instance, the following about Johanna's siblings:

Which one to believe—if any?

Fortunately, every one of the several insertions concerning Johanna's passing all agreed that she came from County Kerry, Ireland, narrowing down the possibilities just a little bit for us.

There was, however, one other clue embedded in Johanna's life story that could be of help: of her five children who lived past infancy, three were actually born in Ireland. The oldest two of these children died in America too soon for records to capture any details about their origins, but for the third child, I held out hope that someone, somewhere might have flubbed up their official duties and mistakenly entered more than just the country of origin.

While I am still looking for that golden mistake, we have another option for seeking information on Johanna's three Irish-born children: the uploading of Irish parish records to a number of websites, both in Ireland and in the United States. If we can find any birth record of the three oldest Kelly children—Timothy, Catherine, or Mary—or even the marriage record for John and Johanna, themselves, we may be able to find that Falvey connection another way.

After all, narrowing our Kelly connection to just one Irish county should be enough to help us—right?

Above: Listing of parents' names from the March 12, 1925, death certificate of Johanna Falvey Kelly's son John J. Kelly; image courtesy Ancestry.com.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Reconstructing Irish Roots
via New Zealand

Most descendants of Irish Catholic ancestors know the bitter truth about research progress, when it comes to reaching back to the homeland before the Great Famine: records that can provide assurance that, yes, we are tracing the right individuals are few, if any.

I thought perhaps I had a chance at reconstructing one branch of my Irish-American father-in-law. His paternal grandmother hadn't left Ireland until almost 1870, long after the famine exodus had flooded American ports with record-keeping challenges. By that later date, I hoped, governmental officials and other keepers of records—think newspapers, for one—would have upped their game enough to capture greater details about each new arrival. Likewise, Catholics back in the home country would, by that point, have been less likely to be punitively excluded from customary civil records, and ecclesiastical duties would have been less covert, as well.

So far, though, that shining hope has not lit on any revealing documents. I am still as much at a loss over these most-recent immigrant arrivals from my father-in-law's heritage as I've been for the past decade.

Except for one detail: my husband has had this DNA match who claims this very same heritage—and is diligently researching the same family line, as well.

The line we are both pursuing has the added misfortune, in my father-in-law's case, of being associated with a surname claimed by a great number of Irish, both remaining at home and circling the globe in their quest for a better home: Kelly. In my father-in-law's history, fortunately, that Kelly ancestor married a woman by the name of Falvey in March of 1859.

As it turns out, that Falvey surname could possibly be the one to help untangle my father-in-law's Kelly roots. We have a DNA match between my husband and a descendant from that extended Falvey family from County Kerry, Ireland. The only issue is that this DNA match is not living in the United States—and is not even a descendant still living in Ireland. This DNA match comes from a line which left Ireland and journeyed halfway around the world to settle in New Zealand.

Not to worry about that match out of left field. I'd already made the exciting discovery that our Falvey ancestor had, indeed, had a family member who had moved to New Zealand. I learned it from reading the fine print in Johanna Falvey Kelly's own 1903 obituary:
She was born in County Kerry, Ireland, but came to America with her husband, John Kelly, in 1870, locating in Fort Wayne the same year, and has resided in this city continuously since that time. The husband died about eleven years ago. Three children survive.... There are also several sisters living in Ireland and one in New Zealand.

Don't you wish those old-fashioned obituaries would have been more specific about the details we seek? With that one clue about New Zealand, though, I feel I have enough of a confirmation to proceed with what will turn out to be a considerable amount of research grunt work.

While we can't just flip open a record book and point to a specific page where the document lays out everything we need to know about this Falvey family, we can, with the help of DNA confirmation and several related documents, construct a collection of records which can allow us to draw inferences from the few hints we find along that research trail. 

Above: Excerpt from the handwritten Catholic Parish Registers for Kilcummin in County Kerry, Ireland, showing the 1859 marriage of Johannis Kelly; courtesy Ancestry.com.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Change-O" Isn't Always so Presto

It's been one of those weeks when genealogy research most clearly shines its light on the tedious side of discovery. Not only did I stumble upon a case of mistaken identities—which I still need to clean up—but I spent the majority of my time merging two family trees into one.

Making that kind of change to the records isn't always as simple as it might sound. In other words, don't expect "presto" results. The matter requires step by step inspection of the data already on file in the old tree, then confirmation that the facts made the transition to the target tree unscathed. Thus, while the numbers for my biweekly report look like I revved up the output on my mother-in-law's tree, it's really only the bloat of adding individuals from my father-in-law's tree into his wife's tree.

There is a reason for this duplication of effort: in order to tag my husband's DNA matches on the tree in which he's linked, I had to bring over the rest of the family. Now, I'm still keeping four trees—one for each of my daughter's grandparents—but only two of them will represent the full complement of the family's members.

While we need to remember that those bloated numbers only mean I've done a do-over of sorts in the process—and encountered some messes which need more attention—hidden in the count are also a few notes of progress. That can be seen in the nineteen new individuals I managed to add to my father-in-law's tree, as I combed through the data in the big shift. Little signs of progress deserve celebration, too.

The big leap came on my mother-in-law's tree, which is now the combined tree for my husband's family. To celebrate that, I actually renamed the tree to reflect the inclusion. That mega-tree now contains 18,852 people, a jump of 295 names, though the great majority of those were simple migrations—plus some fact checking—from my father-in-law's tree. Still, in true do-over fashion, a few new names got added to the list.

Though not a single increase made it to my father's tree, I did have a chance to augment my own mother's tree. Right now, her tree has 22,383 people in it, an increase of 167 names in the past two weeks, but remember that I went through the same duplication exercise with her tree in the last biweekly period.

Now that the significant branches of the paternal lines have been combined with their respective maternal sides, the new genealogical landscape is making for smoother sailing, as I work through the DNA matches on both families. I'm finding it quite easy, having laid the groundwork, to plug in those matches, all the way up to fourth cousins—in some cases, even well beyond that point, thanks to the paper trail.

Some tasks seem to take inordinately long to get started, but once the ball is rolling, can move along almost effortlessly. That is turning out to be the case, now that the groundwork has been laid in these two family trees. It's been rather rewarding to see that endless DNA match list of names settle into some semblance of organization, now that the groundwork has been laid. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Dreaded Duplications

There are some times when the handiness of technology can make messes a bit too easily. I just stumbled upon such a case.

It was a situation of a family tree with too many Georges marrying women named Sarah. I thought I had dealt with this particular case of duplications a while back, but apparently doing so "to my satisfaction" left me blissfully unaware of the mess I left behind me.

Now, in retrospect, all I can figure is that, at some point, I must have clicked that "merge with duplicate" button in my genealogical database program and—poof!—instantaneously evaporated the finely-delineated two identically-named men into one. With two wives. Named Sarah. And umpteen kids, all claiming vaguely similar names.

These things can happen.

I owe it all to the irritatingly ALL-CAPS family tree readout of a DNA match to my husband's side of the family. When I spotted the surname in question—Gordon, as in descendants of that George Gordon of Georgetown—I confess I had thought, "Oh, this will be a snap." How wrong I was.

Recreating a mistaken pathway to untangle the false branches can be a challenge. My first instinct is to start not from the point of discovering my messy two Georges, but to move back to the present to begin at the point of the DNA match, himself. After all, unless they are adoptees, most people can assert fairly confidently the names of their own parents. I can feel fairly certain about that part of this DNA match's tree, and from that point, build my own version of his tree to confirm each step of the way backwards in time.

That will make me feel a bit more confident about which branch of the family this match belongs to, but it doesn't entirely resolve my problem. After all, I have somehow combined the families of two Gordon men named George, and will have to figure out which Sarah belongs to which George.

Arriving at that answer won't be the end of the problem, though. The knot will be untangled only when the right Sarah is attached to the right children—and then, each couple needs to be correctly aligned with their own parents, as well. That means, with two Georges and two Sarahs, there should be eight parental names to further untangle this mess. Hopefully, those individuals don't also carry the same exact names. That would really mess with my mind.

The tedium of situations like this requires the type of attentiveness which can wear on a researcher—but they are cases which can't be left undone.  Often, they require delving deeper into an ancestor's life story than simply relying on a few documents sparsely touching upon key points in that individual's life. This is where newspaper reports or probate records can fill in the blanks where a few census records might miss the crux of the matter. If nothing else, at the end of this research do-over, I'll have not only a clearer picture of each ancestor, but a richer, more contextually-based understanding of each individual.

I've flagged the spot in the tree where I stumbled upon this record catastrophe and made a note to myself so I won't lose track of where the error is, buried deep within the nearly twenty thousand individuals in my mother-in-law's tree. This isn't the type of research which makes for scintillating story telling, but it is necessary, nonetheless.

Friday, June 12, 2020

There's New Blood in that Spit Take

"Your spit has something to say about you," says the text below a wide-eyed woman barely concealing a "yeah, what?" smirk. The online ad is from AncestryDNA and prompts the user to click to "learn more." I never click because, like you, I already have a pretty good idea what that spit has had to say about me. My spit's already been taken.

When the DNA testing craze first hit, it seemed the idea captivated people. Judging by the numbers, the market zoomed upwards impressively. And then, just like so many fads, it crashed and burned. Now—as I think many in the genealogy world assume—only the stalwarts and their proselytes are still testing. The rate at which new matches have been added to my accounts has dribbled, in some cases, to single-digit gains per week.

And yet, the slightest hint of a shift seems to be shining through. Even though most people who rely on DNA testing to augment their genealogy research know that the best family members to test are the oldest, I'm seeing more and more DNA matches—for the accounts that I manage, at least—who are not among those oldest.

Don't think that those are the ones whose results are unattached from any family tree. I'm seeing quite a number of new matches—bright, shiny face alongside their account name—who actually have made a decent go at attaching a tree.

Of course, I haven't exactly done a statistical analysis of this change, so don't hold me to anything here. But is there a shift going on regarding which people are becoming receptive to pursuing their roots?

Perhaps it's the result of a recent series of television programs focused on genealogy. I know that has always been the driving force behind increased interest in everything from genealogy blog posts to  my local genealogy classes. That, however, is usually demonstrated by an increase in numbers, but what I'm seeing this time is a change in the types of people jumping into this genealogical pursuit.

About half a year ago, a young teenage girl approached my daughter, her teacher, asking for a way to learn about genealogy and DNA, in particular. Of course, we were more than happy to help her learn how to start her family tree.

That, though, is not the end of the story. Just yesterday, I opened up my husband's account at AncestryDNA and spotted a new match—a close match—labeled with familiar initials which made me wonder. Sure enough, seeing the account administrator's name when I went to send a message, I knew exactly who it was. I sent an email to the mom of this young man to confirm—and yes, the DNA test was what he requested as his birthday gift. He, too, wants to learn more about his family history.

While I have plenty of chances to mourn, with fellow genealogical society members, who know that at their passing, no one in their family will want to carry on their family history research, I am also seeing refreshing signs that there are young people stepping up to learn how to become part of this fascinating pursuit.

Whether it is the online presence, the computerized systems that make finding documents so much easier, or the scientific flavor that DNA testing lends to the big picture, I'm not sure. Whatever it is, I'm encouraged to see so many new people bring so much youthful energy to the desire to learn more about their roots. It's a fascinating journey—and the longer it is enjoyed, the better.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Having it to do All Over Again

Have you ever considered scrapping your genealogical research and starting again from scratch? I know one person who considered that. Genealogy speaker Thomas MacEntee made that decision five years ago, and in his characteristic way, not only walked that walk himself, but invited his many followers to join him in the journey. Equipped with his published The Genealogy Do-Over Workbook and establishing a collaborative online community for mutual support while working through his twelve-step program, Thomas MacEntee led the charge to start that research from scratch.

I'm not certain I'm up for such a drastic approach. With nearly twenty thousand individuals in my mother's tree, plus almost as many in my mother-in-law's tree, I really don't want to fall back to square one. There is, however, a reason I've found myself doing it all over again: I need to combine trees. Because of new DNA analysis tools released this year, I'm finding it more helpful to have both sides of my family assembled in the same tree to help me identify where my DNA matches fall in the big family picture, rather than the separate trees I've been keeping for each branch of the family. Thus despite my aversion to doing so, back to square one I go.

While Thomas' Genealogy Do-Over has had enough adherents clamoring for an updated version that he granted their wish last year, I have found a way to devise my own system. Genealogy is certainly a process which does better with constant re-checking, especially as new record sets become available online, so there is really no way to escape that demand. I comb through the main branches of my trees to check for newly-available documents for further verification, though for starters, I try not to add any names until they can be placed because of information in records.

This week, as I add the tree of my father-in-law into my mother-in-law's substantially larger tree, I've been going person by person and feeling very much like someone in the midst of a do-over. Rather than just copy the smaller tree wholesale and add it directly into the larger one, I feel the step by step process helps flag individuals for whom there are newly-available records. More important to the process is catching updates which were not available in the past: new births in family lines, recent marriages or deaths to record.

Still, I can't help feel that desire to be done with the project. There are some parts of genealogy which, frankly, can be quite tedious. Spring cleaning, whether of residences or heritages, is the necessary drudgery which, only when done, refreshes.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Untangling the Spaghetti Bowl

Do you ever have a small project to tackle which, despite its size, is so messy, you put off handling it? That's how I feel about taking on the recently-added family tree building option at DNA company 23andMe.

While 23andMe apparently first unveiled their automated tree-building technology in beta form back in October, 2019, I didn't notice the option until it was released from test mode earlier this year. At first, I was excited to see its arrival—as were many others who wanted to see a tree built solely from input from DNA inferences. Upon closer inspection, however, my enthusiasm began to cool. The chart looked as organized as a diagram of a bowl of spaghetti strands.

My first hint that this automated attempt might not be as science-y and high tech as hoped for came when I took a peek at my husband's tree at 23andMe. Right away, I could see his 23andMe customer cousins were listed a generation off from their true relationship. Of course, that's what being the baby of the baby can do for generational alignment, but it wasn't immediately apparent how I could correct the error, other than answer a questionnaire and provide feedback.

Thankfully, the feedback was immediately taken and adjustments easily made. But that was on my husband's tree. When I looked at mine, with its messy history of a paternal grandfather who buried his true origin once he arrived in his adopted homeland, I could see there were paternal matches showing on both sides of my tree.

Keep in mind there really is no way, currently, to tell solely from one DNA test which side of a family a match belongs to. It is possible to determine whether a test taker is genetically male or female, but when it comes to isolating which chromosome patterns come from mom or from dad, we really need to have a known match to help us triangulate. A machine-generated tree is not capable of sorting things to that fine a degree.

And so, we help the automated by rearranging the nodes on the tangled lines in the relationship chart. Those undulating wavy lines, as they are represented in the 23andMe version of a pedigree chart, can be edited, augmented, and rearranged. The way to do so, however, became apparent only gradually.

I found my first clue that this was possible not from its source—23andMe as originator of the service—but thanks to a genetic genealogy blogger. It was Kitty Cooper's blog post at the end of May which first alerted me to the fact that the 23andMe blog had anything to say about it.

Thankfully, they have—and I've read it over very carefully. The task is still going to be a messy process—hence my hesitation to just jump in and get to work—but it's a try-as-you-go experiment, anyhow.

My first step was to take 23andMe up on their option to wipe everything clean and start afresh. Despite the warnings that any self-made edits would be lost in the revision, I had nothing to lose—and hopefully a chance for an updated run at the data.

Now comes the long slog: adding in the names I know of my direct lines, sorting the maternal from the paternal, and getting the right spaghetti strand attached to the right ancestor's line of descent. I go nearly cross-eyed trying to keep all those curvy lines straight.

On the bright side: perhaps, at the end, I'll have found a way to correctly attach my mystery cousins from Wisconsin into my paternal grandfather's tree. I'm already to the point where I can spot which ones are the mystery ones; it's just a matter of plugging them into the right branch of the tree.

After all, if I don't like the placement, 23andMe has devised a way for us to move entire branches of the tree from one node to another. They're flexible like that.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Not What I Meant to do Today

I'm ambivalent. After spending time on an unexpected and fun project—which ate up the available hours in my day—I'm still not sure whether what I did was worth the time.

It all started with an accidental discovery. I'm sure you've run across these in your quest to document your family's history. Nothing earth-shattering, you understand. Just unexpected: I found a photo.

When I realized what I had found, I couldn't just keep it to myself; I had to show others in my extended family. As much as I hate to admit it, the fastest way to connect with a lot of my family's cousins is via Facebook. And so, we chatted across the miles, from California to Florida, from Wisconsin to Texas.

I haven't really made up my mind about the usefulness of the photos now included in collections such as Ancestry and MyHeritage. To tell the truth, it becomes rather annoying when I click on a relative's profile on my Ancestry account and see twenty or thirty hints pop up—all high school yearbook photos of great-uncle XYZ's football team, with his face about the size of a pin head. Not very helpful for assessing facial similarities. I mostly click "ignore" and banish them to genealogy oblivion—anywhere else, as long as it is far from my trees.

This time was different. I was in the process of taking the descendants from my father-in-law's tree and migrating them over to the larger tree of my mother-in-law, to facilitate pinning my husband's DNA matches to that one, universal tree. I was in the process of working on the latest-arriving branch of my father-in-law's family, an Irish family by the name of Kelly, who in the late 1860s left the region around the Lakes of Killarney for the rivers converging around Fort Wayne, Indiana.

That Kelly family brought with them three children—a son and two daughters—and added two more sons after their arrival in Fort Wayne. In a tragic (and unbelievable) accident, the Kellys lost their eldest son as a teenager, and a few years later, lost their next child, the daughter who had married a Stevens man who later became my husband's great-grandparents; she died after giving birth to Will Stevens, my husband's grandfather whom I've written about before.

Since making all those research trips back east to extract copies of the original documents—long before Ancestry.com was a thing—I had constructed a fairly reliable pedigree chart of all the family relationships, even to the point of including descendants of each Kelly sibling from that original immigrant family. What I had no idea of, however, was what anyone looked like.

Fast forward...um...a lot of years. I'm still including descendants in my family trees, especially now that I have lots of mystery DNA cousins to connect to that ever-growing tree. And I'm still groaning and deleting, every time I get a hint for an old high school yearbook picture. All of a sudden, while working on the timeline for a son of Catherine Kelly Stevens' brother Patrick, I see something which makes me stop and reconsider.

It was a high school portrait for Patrick's youngest son, Stephan Carle Kelly, but it looked like some other faces I've seen in that extended family—namely, my husband's own cousins. Keep in mind, I've never met this Kelly cousin, nor have any of my husband's close family; Stephan Kelly died in 1951, still in his forties. To the best of my ability, I could not find any children he could call his own, though I could see that he had been married. Though he would have been a cousin to my husband's grandfather, it is unlikely that my husband or any of his cousins would have seen that face to remember it, nor even the face of the next generation. We really have no way of knowing what the Kelly family looked like.

And yet, here was this high school picture. And eyes that belong to some of my husband's own relatives, plus a trademark crooked smile which looks like it belongs to one specific cousin we do know.

The whole experience gave me pause to rethink my assessment of the utility of including yearbook pictures on a genealogy site. This may be the only chance some people have to reconstruct the origin of facial features we see every day on the faces of the family we grew up with. Sometimes, that similarity gets so close, it's almost eerie.

Above: A face from the past which fits eerily into our family's present: Stephan Carle Kelly in Fort Wayne, as pictured in his 1925 Central Catholic High School yearbook; image courtesy Ancestry.com.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Not on the Father's Day Sales List?

It is now less than two weeks until Father's Day, at least in North American countries. Yet, all I can spot, on the gift-giving horizon, is one single sale for DNA tests. I'm not sure whether that is a sign that DNA testing has gone out of style, or that it has experienced a chill factor due to worries over the current coronavirus. After all, you may be able to spit in the isolation of your own home, but what becomes of the lab technician who runs the risk of handling contaminated samples?

Meanwhile, it looks like only MyHeritage has taken the opportunity to put their DNA tests on sale for this Father's Day. Genealogy Bargains blogger Thomas MacEntee has made sure to report that right away, and just as surely as he brings all genealogical bargains to light with lightning speed, he has been rather silent about any other DNA opportunities. At least, so far.

I've pretty much convinced every relative I can to test, so I'm not likely to purchase any more kits this year. What I do look forward to, however, is the opportunity to gain new matches. DNA matches have done wonders for the mystery branches on my family tree, but that mechanism requires a certain critical mass to benefit customers. After all, it takes two to make a match. No family member testing, no match for you. And it's rather difficult to know who those mystery cousins are, out there in the great beyond, who would make the case for adding that missing ancestor to your tree.

Meanwhile, I'm still fielding questions and comments about ethnicity results. Today is our local genealogical society's DNA group, which meeting we now hold via videoconferencing. I try to ask members ahead of time which topics they would most like to discuss in the upcoming meeting.

For this month's round of emailed requests, one member wanted to know more about the specifics of ethnicity testing. She told me how, upon discovering the surprising assertion that she had a small but significant percentage of her heritage originating from Sardinia, thought it was strange, but decided to do research on the country, of which she previously knew very little. She studied up so much on the country that she rather warmed up to the idea that part of her roots might have been from Sardinia. In fact, she got to like the idea so much that she planned to add it to her list of places to visit.

And then, her ethnicity estimates got revised. Just when she was hoping to someday travel to her "homeland," that country's entry in her DNA estimates entirely disappeared. She laughs at how disappointed she became at that turn of events, but I imagine she is not the only one to find herself in that position.

I find myself sneaking a peek at my Family Tree DNA accounts to see whether I've received their announced ethnicity update yet, myself. Why, I can't say—I trust the paper trail far more than I believe the estimates. There are too many variables that are included in the mix of who we are and how we got to be where we are now, that we really shouldn't put so much credence upon that aspect of those test kits.

But helping people to find the missing link in their brick walls—now, that is a different issue. I can vouch for that, especially with all the tools companies are now developing to help us sort through those myriad matches. Now, that's what DNA is best at doing for us.

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