Monday, November 24, 2014

What I learned from one year's family postcards

More than half a century ago my mother wrote dozens of postcards to her mother, who lived an hour away. The families also visited two or three times a month. At this time there were five children under nine years old in the house. Reading them over is fun, sometimes a bit spooky, and it made me think about using family resources because in this case I can remember some of that year.

Yes, these are original sources containing primary information (from an eyewitness). Reading cards from a later year completely overturned a well-established family story. Another family story about when I gave up a nickname is kiboshed by one of these cards. Memory is changeable. So one lesson from these postcards is that we need to write down verbal accounts ASAP. Over time, what we remember of that verbal account will change in ways that the written one will not.

So in some contexts these family records are pretty authoritative. But as usual, the more we know (and reflect on) how these records were created, the better we can evaluate them. First of all, they can contain mistakes. In some ways like diaries, they leave out things, sometimes the very things we would most like to know. Because these happen to fall within my memory, I can see some warning signs as to how we use them. In general, they may not be good sources of negative evidence. If they never mention X, that may not be very strong evidence that X was not the case or did not happen.

For instance:

(1) Some difficult or embarrassing or upsetting things. I had to change schools that year (2nd grade), which was a big deal. I threw at least one major fit. It's not in the postcards.

(2) Current events that Mom and her mom had surely discussed during their visits. Our move across town took place that spring, but it is only alluded to in a couple of places; a casual reader might even miss the clues.

(3) Background information that everybody knew and took for granted. Sometimes these facts are alluded to: on one day the big news was that the baby had a tooth and that Mom was caught up on her ironing. ("Grandma, what's an iron?") Everybody who lived in town walked to school -- including my father to his teaching job; he would sometimes add a quick P.S. to a card or letter at the post office on his way. Some background is not mentioned at all: diapers were made of cloth and were regularly washed and hung out to dry and reused; coal was delivered by truck and shoveled into the "coal room" in the basement where it was later shoveled into the furnace.

I think I will read the previous generation's letters more carefully after this experience. What lies between the lines and beyond the lines? These precious records deserve our best attention even when there is no brick wall in sight.



Harold Henderson, "What I learned from one year's family postcards," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Could genealogists investigate how local economies disappeared in the 20th century?

Once upon a time -- about 100 years ago, when my grandparents were younger than my children are now -- small towns and small cities were real economic entities. Their very city directories were often locally (or regionally) published. Purdue historian John Lauritz Larson wrote in The State of Indiana History 2000:

"At the turn of the nineteenth century, Indianapolis and half a dozen smaller cities in Indiana boasted hundreds of factories, mostly family owned. In towns such as Lafayette, Terre Haute, Evansville, and Fort Wayne, one could buy bread flour, buggies, and even locomotives of local manufacture. Everything from automobiles to bicycles, boots, baking powder, caskets, cheese, cigars, doorknobs, furniture glassware, grits, handbags, harnesses, hats, lawn mowers, pianos, pork-and-beans, roller skates, sheet music, and wagon wheels was available -- all marked 'made in Indiana.'"
What happened? Some few entrepreneurs got big and eventually elbowed the rest out of the way -- they had easier access to capital and made things shinier and cheaper than their competitors who stayed local.

But how did it happen? What were the left-behind manufacturers thinking and doing as the levers of power moved out of town in the 1920s and 30s and 40s? What about the family capitalists? Once they were local decision-makers, who were settled for the duration and who belonged to the place -- now their "successors" run multinational corporations that have little loyalty to any particular nation, let alone any smaller place. Most local businesses (by dollar volume) are franchises or chains whose bosses have none of the same local commitment or clout.

Did someone say "family"? Actually, genealogists might be in a position to contribute to answering these questions. (To my way of thinking they are microhistorical questions, in that don't primarily deal with issues of relationship or identity, but the methods are much the same.) Studies of these families, conducted with these questions in mind, might be very interesting. It wouldn't surprise me if some have already been done. The interesting ones will stick to the facts and avoid big-picture assumptions, either positive (that it was all a painful but inevitable and wonderful change) or negative (that it was some kind of dastardly plot).



John Lauritz Larson, "'Striving after Wind': The Changing Sources of Hoosier Prosperity," pp. 249-271 [quote on p. 255], in Robert M. Taylor, Jr., ed., The State of Indiana History 2000: Papers Presented at the Indiana Historical Society's Grand Opening (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2001).


Harold Henderson, "Could genealogists investigate how local economies disappeared in the 20th century?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 20 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Monday, November 17, 2014

How I learned what to do with undocumented family trees

Back in the 20th century, my wife's father's mother's family spent a lot of time (and some money on a professional genealogist in North Carolina) trying to find the ancestors of her great-great grandmother Jennie (Cochran) Boren.

They got nowhere; my daughter and I got nowhere too -- until she came across a family tree on Rootsweb's WorldConnect pages, a more static predecessor of today's Ancestry trees. The tree contained names and dates -- no sources. But it approached Jennie from the "other side," that is, her birth family.

Did we sneer at this tree -- unsourced as it was, and connected to an address whose owner never responded to our inquiries? We did not.

But we didn't believe it and take its statements as gospel, either -- we had been around long enough not to do that either.

We did the same as reasonable people do with family stories they heard in person -- checked the claims out against the available records. Was Jennie found in census records with her claimed parents? Were they the ages claimed? What about the siblings and aunts and uncles? Could we find quality sources, information, and evidence that confirmed or denied the claims in the tree?

We did. There's more work to be done on this line but without this rather disreputable-seeming lead, we might still be looking for Jennie (AKA Jane E.).

Wise genealogists use all available clues. Dogmatic rejection of apparently low-quality sources is no more sensible than dogmatic acceptance of them. Don't be a source snob.


Harold Henderson, "How I learned what to do with undocumented family trees," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Methodology Friday with Isaac Young

Isaac Young (1799-1872) died in California. Where did Shirley Langdon Wilcox, CG, FNGS, find the clue that led to identifying his father back in Virginia? By reading the 1898 California obituary of a woman who died more than 25 years after him; she had been married to his son Leander's partner in a sawmill. It also helped that Wilcox knew about private laws.

Wilcox's article appears in the current (September) issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. I won't spoil your pleasure in following her logic step by step, but doing so should be enough all by itself to quash the notion that genealogy means finding out "all about" your ancestor.

To find our ancestor's ancestor, we often have to study his or her friends, neighbors, and associates -- and sometimes associates of his associates! -- as if they were relatives . . . because some of them probably were. This goes double or triple for ancestors, like Isaac, whose origins lie in the "Dark Age" of US genealogy.



Harold Henderson, "Methodology Friday with Isaac Young," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 14 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Are you an advancing genealogist?

BCG trustee and forensic genealogist Debra Mieszala of Lake County, Illinois, is now posting at The Advancing Genealogist: Genealogy, Experience, and Education. Illinois researchers in particular should check out her posts on statutory law links and indexes.

From where I sit, we can always use more educational blogs with high standards. This one comes with resource links on adoption, a perennially hot topic where people want to learn fast.

What you might not know if you haven't heard her speak is that she does great stories too. A few days ago she had a timely guest post over at Ancestry, profiling a fallen Korean War veteran.



Harold Henderson, "Are you an advancing genealogist?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 11 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.




Monday, November 10, 2014

Miscellaneous Monday with APG PMC, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, and technical writing tips


Getting ready to speak in Terre Haute on " 'Are We There Yet?' Proof and the Genealogy Police," so here's what's news in my world:

* This is the last week to get the early-bird price for the Association of Professional Genealogists' Professional Management Conference at the Salt Lake City Hilton January 8-9. It features presentations, workshops, and chances to meet people that you will not normally find at the big conferences -- not to mention the world's greatest genealogy library within walking distance.

Don't let APG's middle name fool you: anyone who's ramping up their genealogy but isn't necessarily interested in the business end will find plenty of value here. Those under the age of 30 will also find a discounted registration fee!

* The increasingly active BCG blog "Springboard" has a quotable visit with newly elected president Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CG. "My journey with BCG began in the 'dark ages,' in the late 1990s . . . During the process I realized I had overestimated how 'good' I was and there was much that I needed to learn. Assembling the portfolio focused my genealogy education."

* The ever-diligent Scout Report has assembled a bouquet of items on technical writing. They tend to be focused on science, but the one that I did read through ("Sentence Structure of Technical Writing") was almost entirely appropriate for genealogy technical writing, as in the BCG portfolio requirement of a complex-evidence case study, or in the top journals in the field, or any time we're trying just to lay out our own evidence and reasoning clearly enough that we will be able to understand it when we pick up that project a few months from now. "Budget adequate time to write, review, revise and edit."



Harold Henderson, "Miscellaneous Monday with APG PMC, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, and technical writing tips," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]



Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Baker's Dozen: Free Advice to Applicants for Certification


1. Don't be shy; show what you know! 

2. If you read the NGS Quarterly in hopes of finding your own ancestors, don't apply yet. 

3. If you don't read the NGS Quarterly, start. 

4. When in doubt, question every piece of information. When not in doubt, question every piece of information. Then explain. See #1.

5. Breathe deep and savor the difference between a transcription and an original record.

6. Don't sweat the petty things -- follow the GPS. If you think that means Global Positioning System, don't apply yet.

7. If you need to survey the literature, remember that not all of it is in the form of unsourced trees on Ancestry.

8. To analyze is human; to correlate is divine.

9. Get comfortable with the strangeness of the past. It is not the present in funny clothes.

10. Practice. Never, ever submit the first one you did of anything.

11. If your teachers and friends think anything goes, find new ones.

12. Read the directions. 

13. Really. Read the directions. 




Harold Henderson, "A Baker's Dozen: Free Advice to Applicants for Certification," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 6 November 2014 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]