Sunday, July 20, 2014

Methodology Sunday with NGSQ: A Boren Family in Pittsburgh

Samuel W. Boren's 1898 Pittsburgh death certificate said that he was 69 and that his parents were both named Boren. Ten years later his grandson wrote down a more informative, brief, and entirely unsourced profile of Samuel's birth family. In the June issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, I treated it as a hypothesis and managed to confirm it, relying on indirect evidence and evidence from better-documented siblings.

Key records were censuses, city directories, Methodist newspapers and records, tax lists, property records, and vital records (in a state other than Pennsylvania). Key tools included establishing a migration chronology (mostly in and around Pittsburgh), creating tables to condense and correlate multiple pieces of evidence, and establishing connections between Samuel, each of his two brothers, and their sisters.

Of course, the conclusion that Samuel's parents were John Boren and Elizabeth Moore just sets up two more tricky parentage problems in early 19th-century "Dark Age" western Pennsylvania genealogy.

Like many articles, this one has had multiple incarnations. It is the more finished version of a case presented to half of the January 2014 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy Advanced Evidence Practicum. And it will be one of several proof arguments to be dissected in the January 2015 SLIG course "From Confusion to Conclusion." Samuel was or is my great-great-great grandfather-in-law.

Harold Henderson, "Testing Family Lore to Determine the Parentage of Samuel W. Boren of Pittsburgh," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 97-110.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Sunday with NGSQ: A Boren Family in Pittsburgh," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 20 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer 2014 Ohio Genealogy News with repositories

The peppy Ohio Genealogy News has information that many researchers will want: detailed information about the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society) by Shelley Bishop, the Ohio Genealogical Society Library by Tom Neel (in an interview), and the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana by me. Those who frequent the center will recognize the cover photo: a sidelong view of its banks of microfilmed city directories from all over.

OGN also has a way of including material of interest well northwest of Toledo and southeast of Marietta -- in this issue, Diane Van Skiver Gagel describes the tortures our 19th-century ancestors went through to be photographed.

Even those few with no Ohio relatives will find useful material here. Join OGS to get in on the action and read OGN on line.

Harold Henderson, "Allen County Genealogy Center: Midwestern Mega-Library," Ohio Genealogy News 45 (Summer 2014): 14-17.

Harold Henderson, "Summer 2014 Ohio Genealogy News with repositories," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 18 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

More Midwestern deaths on line

Joe Beine's Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records has new material for twelve lucky Midwestern counties:

Illinois: Cook, DuPage, Jackson
Indiana: Warrick
Michigan: Alpena, Emmet, Mason, Oakland
Ohio: Montgomery, Tuscarawas
Wisconsin: Oneida, Rock

Some of these are tied in with other local indexes -- take a little time to check out the others as well!

Harold Henderson, "More Midwestern deaths on line," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 15 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sociology as context for genealogy

Two 20th-century guys I wish had had longer lives are George Orwell and C. Wright Mills. Mills's 1951 book White Collar is a minute examination of what became of the 19th-century society we often encounter in genealogy. The subjects of my first kinship determination project were three generations of Burdicks: Rodman (1799-1878, carpenter and farmer), son Joseph (1826-1897, farmer, insurance agent, laundry proprietor, clerk, and more), and grandson Frank (1855-1920, printer, express company agent, carpenter for a railroad company). They were all middle class in their times, but during their century-and-a quarter, the meaning of "middle class" changed.

Mills has interesting things to say about this, and while he's no Orwell he does so in language more readable than that of many sociologists:
The most important single fact about the society of small entrepreneurs was that a substantial proportion of the people owned the property with which they worked. . . . perhaps four-fifths of the free people who worked owned property. {7}

What happened to the world of the small entrepreneur is best seen by looking at what happened to its heroes: the independent farmers and the small businessmen. These men, the leading actors of the middle-class economy of the nineteenth century, are no longer at the center of the American scene; they are merely two layers between other more powerful or more populous strata. . . . Democratic property, which the owner himself works, has given way to class property, which others are hired to work and manage . . . .  Work is now a set of skills sold to another, rather than something mixed with his own property. {13, 14} . . . Over the last hundred years, the United States has been transformed from a nation of small capitalists into a nation of hired employees. {34}

Harold Henderson, "Sociology as context for genealogy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 14 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, July 7, 2014

Methodology Monday with Robots

From Mashable (hat tip to Tara Calishain at ResearchBuzz):

"Quarterly corporate earnings reports from the AP will soon be produced through a computer program that is able to take the key numbers from companies' results to create a story of 150 to 300 words, the media company announced in a blog post. . . . The AP isn't the only organization using journobots. The New York Times uses automation for some of its wedding announcements, while Automated Insights also provides recaps for fantasy football matchups. . . . the AP is looking at using automation on 'results stories for lower-audience sports.'"

(I omit mention of TV announcers as they may well already be robots, albeit rather excitable ones.)

The same thing is happening to genealogy, bit by bit, although not in exactly the same ways.

Look for information and a robot may offer you "hints." Some are wildly wrong, some may be helpful.

Enter the resulting data and your genealogy program will produce a "report." Granted, it reads like it was written by robots, but they are getting smarter all the time. And of course the report in any case is only as good as the data on which it is based.

Robots are getting better at distinguishing kinds of text -- for instance, in searching city directories, knowing enough to distinguish the "Jones" in "Ralph Jones" from the "Jones" in "Jones Street." They may be soon reading handwriting, a function that once required a human being, often an astute one.

Interestingly, many stages of automation involve a certain sacrifice of quality, much as cell phones give up in sound quality some of what they gain in portability. Robots make mistakes in indexing that humans would never make. We tolerate these foibles because on balance the robots usually make our lives easier, but the core of genealogy is not something that can be averaged out -- it's either the way things were back then, or it's not.

What's my point? Not to complain. It's just this: Within some lifetimes now begun, advanced genealogy will be the only genealogy requiring human involvement:
  • looking in physical places where robots don't know and can't go, either because the materials aren't digitized or because no one thought of "that stuff" as being genealogically relevant;
  • distinguishing bogus robotic "hints" from useful ones, and otherwise fixing robotic errors in their output;
  • resolving conflicting evidence;
  • analyzing and correlating complex collections of evidence properly; and
  • writing a coherent and convincing proof argument.
 Have a nice century.

"The Associated Press Now Automates Earnings Stories, No Humans Needed," Mashable ( : viewed 1 July 2014).

Photo credit: Neil Milne's photostream, "Cheery Robot Lazer Attack Nail Art" ( : viewed 1 July 2014), per Creative Commons.


Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with Robots," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 7 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, June 30, 2014

Methodology Monday: Is a good memory a method?

This morning Jill Morelli's excellent blog post reminded me of one of the six qualities Donald Lines Jacobus required of a good professional genealogist: "Ability to grasp and retain an infinite amount of detail."

The idea that a genealogist (or anyone) needs to know lots of facts was more fashionable 80 years ago than now, when we can always look things up on line. But the reason to have them in our heads is to be able to flag things as we see them and make the connection.

Some examples from a set of records recently viewed. What would you suspect about the parents, or the place, or the time of birth, if you found a child with one of these given names?

W. H. H.
Wilbur Orville
Byron Garfield (1880s)
James Blaine
Chester Arthur
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
Raymond Roosevelt (1899)

The more we know, the more we can learn.

Do you have more obscure examples? Share them in the comments!

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday: Is a good memory a method?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 30 June 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, June 23, 2014

Methodology Monday with city directories

City directory research can be time-consuming, but the truth is I rarely spend enough time on them. This morning's stint reminded me that they are deceptively easy to use -- deceptive in that it's easy for us to leave some of their information ungathered. (It also reminded me why I sometimes prefer physical directories to the on-line versions.) Eight suggestions:

(1) Especially in the 19th century, different publishers may have issued multiple directories in the same year. Make sure to see them all.

(2) Look at every edition. Not only do some years contain obvious mistakes (obvious if we know the context), some years also contain unique pieces of information. More importantly, seeing them all allows the series of still shots of our research target to merge into a motion picture of his or her life.

(3) Check for known associates or relatives of interest and work them the same way as the research target.

(4) If one person is at 444 E. 44th Street and another is at 666 S. Presidential Avenue, check the directory's map or street listing or both. They might be right around the corner from one another.

(5) If previous research or the directory itself has provided the name of an employer or a business or a partner, look them up in the business portion of the directory. Where are they? Who's in charge? Do they relocate or disappear over time? . . . And check to see if there is a "vertical file" or clippings file on them.

(6) For cities and towns of the right size at the right time, don't overlook the criss-cross directory (which lists addresses in order, number by number and street by street). Not only does this make neighbors easier to detect, these listings may indicate who was thought to be the owner, whether they had a telephone (still an issue in the 1950s!), and who the various tenants were.

(7) Again, for cities and towns of the right size at the right time, don't overlook the appended directories for twin cities, small towns, suburbs, and farmers (AKA rural taxpayers, often with the acreage and/or assessed amount listed). Our people might be a few steps outside the city limits.

(8) Don't be too sure that a place was too small to have a directory. Size is relative -- especially a century and more ago, when most small towns really believed they had a future as economic centers. You may need to go there to be sure. Even towns that have some directories digitized or on microfilm usually have additional years that have not been picked up, for whatever reason. Worse yet, some small-city directories have been grouped randomly together on unlabeled reels of microfilm identified only by the state name. I have provided indexes to these reels for Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But don't believe for a minute that those towns didn't produce additional directories. A lot of local, niche, and small-market publishers saw this as a business opportunity.

I haven't made up a form for all this stuff (similar to forms some people use to make sure they don't overlook items in deeds), and it wouldn't always help. Sometimes we learn of a new associate or employer, the research turns back on itself, and we have to go back through. City directories are the records that just won't quit.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with city directories," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 June  2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]