Friday, June 28, 2013

Write as you go, mostly

In my previous (journalistic) life, research was part of the job but footnotes were actually forbidden. I got into a kind of "factory system" for visiting libraries, in which I managed my time by planning carefully ahead, so that I more or less automated the process of looking up books and articles and photocopying the good parts, returning home (usually a one- or two-hour journey) to actually read and reflect on them.

"Rip and run" may not have been the best strategy even then. Now that I work in an environment where footnotes are mandatory and where it really helps to think on your feet while in a repository, it definitely is a bad habit to have.

"Write (and think) as you go" is usually a better form of time management (because what you write can often go directly into the research report or article) and a better form of resource management. And stopping to read and ponder each source and its potential evidence enables mid-course corrections that can save trouble later.

But real life does impinge on this. Many repositories are far away and we can't visit them as needed. There is a tradeoff involved. My friend and colleague Patti Hobbs, currently a genealogy librarian in Missouri, wrote recently on the Transitional Genealogists Forum that she would plead guilty to having committed "pinball genealogy":

"But it was either do it that way or not at all. I didn't feel that I could constantly test the patience of my family by doing more than collecting the documents when at the courthouses. People say that you will invariably have to go back to follow new leads, but I find that the case anyway." There's no question which is the best habit to have, but circumstances alter cases.

Very few repositories, even in small towns, can match the hospitable green expanse of Spiegel Grove (pictured above) in Fremont, Ohio, where the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (and northwest Ohio obituary central) is located. And even there our non-genealogical traveling companions of all species do have their limits. As Patti says, "Do the best you can, but don't wallow in guilt if you can't do it perfectly.'" Or as I seem to say in more and more contexts: Something is better than nothing.

Harold Henderson, "Write as you go, mostly," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 28 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The benefits of being a wishy-washy genealogist

My article entitled "Indecision as a Genealogical Virtue" has been published at It includes several examples of how we can create brick walls by clinging too dearly to our assumptions or premature conclusions. A genealogist who can entertain multiple possibilities while continuing to research is likely to be a happier genealogist in the end.

Most examples are from my own research. Dawne Slater-Putt kindly allowed me to summarize and quote from a case she recently worked on and posted as "Perseverance Pays Off" in the blog of the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center.

Harold Henderson, "The benefits of being a wishy-washy genealogist," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 26 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Home improvement has a history too

This review on by economist Kenneth Snowden alerted me to the existence of a history of the business of home improvement in the 20th century. If your people owned or built or fixed up their own house, this book may help show what kind of patterns they were a part of, and perhaps some other angles at "house history" as well. (Be advised that I have only read the review so far!) Check out other economic history reviews while you're at it.

Richard Harris, Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Harold Henderson, "Home improvement has a history too," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Good enough" citations? We can do better.

Have you heard all the talk? Some people are afraid to write anything because they might make a mistake. So -- instead of helping them learn, the idea is that people should just . . . rite enny way she, yknow, feelzlike, cuz y'all'll B all lk aright I git it man so

No, I just made all that up. But it is essentially the argument prolific geneablogger James Tanner (Genealogy's Star) and his commenters have made about citations: don't worry about doing them right, just do them. As long as we can manage to figure out how to find your source, it's OK.

I think Mr. Tanner is about 50% right. We all hesitate to try things when we're not sure we can succeed. Encouragement is in order. As I said in my February 2013 Illinois State Genealogical Society webinar on citations, "Something is better than nothing." But better somethings are better. Education is also in order. (Hobbyists who don't want to be educated, please consult this post from last November.)

Contrary to Mr. Tanner, citations have more than one purpose. As Elizabeth Mills has said repeatedly in Evidence Explained and elsewhere, they are not just about finding the source again, they are also about evaluating the source's quality and quirks. And as Thomas W. Jones adds in his new and excellent book Mastering Genealogical Proof, they also communicate to our readers how well we have made our case, how well we understand the sources, and how solid they are.

(And before anyone starts up with horror stories about the so-called "citation police" who abuse people who misplace a semicolon: Prove it. I have never met any such person. Elizabeth and Tom are the kindest people I know, even when correcting gross errors.)

Citations are a language. We need to learn the language for all the reasons above. We can get by with a few phrases laboriously memorized and mispronounced from a tourist book, or we can immerse ourselves in the language and learn it well. Our choice will depend on our purpose: a weekend in France, or convincing colleagues and relatives who our French ancestors were.

If we speak broken French we may be able to find a bathroom, but we are not likely to persuade any French speaker that we know what we are talking about. It's the same with citations and genealogy: We may be able to understand someone who cites incompletely and carelessly, but we may not value their opinion highly. That's just the way of the world. Knowing the language makes it easier for us to talk together, and it shows that you care.

One other point: even if citations were only for finding our way back to the source, we don't always know what the future holds. What is obvious to us sitting in the library or archive may not be obvious to our grandchild 60 years from now. Today it seems hilarious overkill to identify the URL of a census on or the NARA microfilm publication it derives from. But when Ancestry gets bought or merged out of existence by some as yet unborn Chinese corporation, our descendants may appreciate any clue they can get as to where that information was found. Of course this goes double for less stable web sites.

As genealogists we have to take a wide view. I cannot assume that La Porte is only in Indiana, or only in the United States. One goal of standard citations is that they will be understandable to anyone coming from a different time or place. That's why we put in a lot of context that we personally may know by heart. All those dedicated old folks who carefully pasted newspaper clippings into scrapbooks without labeling or dating them -- they were provincial. We may be grateful to them, but we can't afford to be like them if we want our family histories to last.

And, yes, this does have a personal dimension. I recently encountered the following informal citation:

"Bible record published 1939 by Noel C. Stevenson, Alhambra, California, vol. 1, bible #91."

I can't find it. I am asking an expert genealogy librarian for help, and I'm now asking the readers of this blog: Please embarrass me by locating it easily! If the person who wrote this "good enough" citation had taken only a little more care, there would be no problem.

Harold Henderson, "'Good enough' citations? We can do better," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 21 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Telling history through families

Historians are using families to tell history. Some examples, of which I have read only the first:

Anne F. Hyde, Empires, Nations and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011). It's not news that long-range business transactions worked better when family ties were involved. The same was true in the fur trade and other trades on the far side of the Mississippi. Among other things that meant that the Chouteaus and the Bents had family connections with their Native American trading partners. Generations of mixed-race people worked together. But their world began to end as land-hungry squatters advanced on the west (loudly insisting that the government protect their often illegal intrusions), eastern Indians were forced westward onto the plains, and scientific racism sought to classify and divide by blood quanta. Although the book feels disorganized, reading it gave me a new outlook and attitude on the whole process (and on its less documented form east of the Mississippi a generation and more earlier).

Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). According to reviewer Maurice Jackson in the April 2013 American Historical Review, "a superb microhistory and a transnational history of Atlantic migration," focusing on a family beginning with Rosalie, kidnapped and enslaved from Senegal in West Africa and enslaved in Haiti, then to Cuba after Napoleon's 1801 invasion, then to New Orleans, then to Pau, Basses-Pyrenees, France. The story spans several generations, several revolutions, the US Civil War, the Holocaust, and Belgian tobacco merchants -- all in this mixed-race family.

Erika Kuhlman, Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation after the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 2012). According to reviewer Nancy K. Bristow in the June 2013 American Historical Review, "a triumph," bringing together many historical approaches and human voices. After World War I, officialdom in both the US and Germany "celebrated widows as symbols of patriotism and devotion to the nation." They "often served as justification for continued militarism. Widows, though, did not necessary accept this role."

Harold Henderson, "Telling history through families," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 19 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Good news for Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri researchers!

Five new or expanded Midwestern collections on FamilySearch in the last 2 days:

Illinois -- Lee County

Missouri -- Cole County

Ohio -- Trumbull County and Cleveland

Wisconsin -- 1865 state census

Monday, June 17, 2013

The 200-Year-Old Genealogist

Everyone who's even thinking of going to the Federation of Genealogical Societies' national conference in Fort Wayne in August (or who's thinking of signing up before July 1 to get the early-bird discount) should already be reading both the FGS conference blog and the blog of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library, one of the two local hosts. In just the past few days I've learned:

* how the center's unique adaptation of the Dewey Decimal System works, so that you won't miss anything in searching the printed materials, and

* that the librarians on staff there have among them more than 200 years' worth of genealogy experience.

My free 26-page guide to the center, Finding Ancestors in Fort Wayne, doesn't include either of these fun facts -- yet -- but it can still help you make the most of your limited time there.

Harold Henderson, "The 200-Year-Old Genealogist," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Friday, June 14, 2013

Speaking in Lake County, Indiana, tomorrow morning!

I'll be at the Crown Point library to talk at the Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society meeting at 10 am central time Saturday on "Welcome to the OTHER Midwestern Archives," an idiosyncratic travelogue including advice on how to find your archive . . .

Tour the Pacific of 200 years ago in the April NYGBR

I shouldn't have been surprised -- but I was when I opened the April 2013 New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and found myself plunged into a series of trading voyages around and across the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s, in the first installment of Edward E. Steele's lead article on Capt. William J. Pigot. Pigot and his family were New Yorkers all right, but he at least did not stay put. Steele combined a great story with great genealogy detective work to make sure the right story was being told about the right people.

(Those who read Steele's article will understand why this is the first genealogy article I ever read that brought to mind John Updike's early story, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," in Pigeon Feathers; now also in The New Yorker's subscriber-only online archive for 13 January 1962.)

More conventionally, I was pleased to find a crop of Midwesterners in the first installment of George R. Nye's account of the Preserved Fish Deuel family, with locations including Minnesota (Cottonwood, Faribault, McLeod, Brown, and Ramsey counties), Illinois (Lake County), Wisconsin (Waushara, Marquette, and Green Lake counties), and Iowa (Wright, Kossuth, and Osceola counties).

It's not a slam on the article to say that I enjoyed the footnotes just as much. As the author notes, the article "demonstrates the types of sources and analysis that can be used to document a family" even when vital records are few and far between. Among the alternatives employed were the hybrid township-military records created by many New York town clerks during the Civil War, documenting not only the service but genealogically relevant facts about soldiers from their area.

East-central Ohio (Coshocton, Licking, and Fairfield counties) also was a landing place for one descendant of the Pine-Pettit-Dorlon connection documented in the concluding part of Robert J. Meyers' account.

Edward E. Steele, "William J. Pigot, Captain of the Forester," New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 144, no. 2 (April 2013), 85-100.

George R. Nye, "Children and Grandchildren of Preserved Fish7 Deuel of Cambridge and Massena, New York," New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 144, no. 2 (April 2013), 123-39.

Robert J. Meyers, "A Pine-Pettit-Dorlon Connection: Untangling the Family of Elias D. Pine (1793-1866) of Hempstead, Long Island, New York (concluded)," New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 144, no. 2 (April 2013), 140-54.

Harold Henderson, "Tour the Pacific of 200 years ago in the April NYGBR," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Does genealogy have a future? Don't ask a journalist.

"The eternal search for our ancestors is reaching its end game," claims the two-year-old on-line magazine The Verge, which covers "the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture."

Senior features editor Laura June dropped in on RootsTech and concluded that, between on-line records and DNA advances, genealogy and genealogists can only go downhill from here. "In the next five to 10 years, it will become increasingly simple to find out who your ancestors were even several generations back, with relatively little effort . . . . It’s not hard to imagine a future where the mysteries most of us have in our ancestral past will simply no longer exist." Uh huh. And when I was a kid it wasn't hard to imagine a future when we would all have personal flying cars.

It's a good article in that it is well-written and long enough to convey multiple points of view. Unfortunately, its length was not put to that use. Instead, it confirmed the author's (and no doubt the magazine's) preconceived view. (Hat tip to Stephanie Hoover, who sparked an ongoing LinkedIn discussion on the subject in the group Genealogical and Historical Research, with the somewhat different headline "Another nail in the coffin of professional genealogists...:?")

June did not quote or mention any of the top genealogists now working -- people who might have challenged her assumption that everything executives say is gospel. She noticed that the Family History Library is built in the architectural fashion known as modernism, with straight lines and planes and glass and stone. She wants to think that genealogy is about to become equally shiny and clean and well-defined, no more dusty attics or dank basements or old paper that shatters when you touch it. I say, dream on.

The part of genealogy that is going away is the lookup. (The article makes some sense if you think lookups = genealogy.) I recently was hired to go to a remote county in Indiana where the property records had not been microfilmed. That's an anomaly and it will go away. I got my first glimpse of genealogy from my mom's first cousin back in the 1980s, who spent much time sending letters to relatives and typing her results on multiple carbon paper copies in typewriters. She did valuable work but at the end of the day it was a good-sized journal article, nothing more. That world is gone, and few of us miss it.

Genealogy is changing and will change a lot more, but will it become so easy to find any ancestor that genealogy will be as outdated and trivial as a printed table of logarithms? Not likely, for at least five reasons, none of which got any hearing in The Verge:

(1) Most records useful to genealogists are not microfilmed, not digitized, and not indexed. (More records are useful to genealogists than even we can imagine.)

(2) Even if everything were digitized tomorrow, genealogists still need to know how to find the relevant records. One genealogical fact Laura June didn't disclose: often key records in a proof do not name the person of interest.

(3) Much of the "information" Ancestry makes available is in the form of user-supplied family trees, which are notoriously unsourced and error-prone.

(4) Some of the "mysteries we all have in our past" can be solved by better search engines and DNA and shared documentation. But not all. The unchanged facts of genealogy are that records are scarce; they can be hard to understand; they contradict each other; and they confuse each other (common names). It takes first analyzing individual records and then correlating multiple conflicting records. If Laura June talked to anyone who knows this, such as the author of Mastering Genealogical Proof, she kept it out of the article.

(5) As for the fate of professional genealogy, the possibility of doing it yourself (DIY) in any field rarely translates into the universality of DIY. There are plenty of tools on sale to help anyone grow their own garden, or maintain a vast lawn, but last I checked plenty of professional gardeners were working.

None of the above is meant to disparage or minimize the enormous value that FamilySearch,, and other on-line repositories and search engines have brought to genealogy. (Just ask those of us who were around when they weren't!) It is meant to disparage and minimize popular articles that move straight from preconception to conclusion without finding more than one point of view.

Laura June, "Who am I? Data and DNA answer one of Life's Big Questions," The Verge, 7 May 2013 ( : accessed 10 June 2013).

Harold Henderson, "Does genealogy have a future? Don't ask a journalist," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Good news for Wisconsin and Minnesota researchers

FamilySearch has put up on-line indexes to Milwaukee and Minnesota naturalizations.

Try to remember . . .

Our memory is not like a video camera; indeed it may change every time we recollect something. Here's a fascinating view of memory -- and a reminder why we prefer sources created soon after the fact!

"How Memory Works: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Schachter," History News Network ( : accessed June 2013).

Harold Henderson, "Try to remember...," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Friday, June 7, 2013

You just have to be there

At the end of the day, genealogy is still about local knowledge. Most records are not on line. Most are not even microfilmed. Just as the best fertilizer for a garden is the gardener's footsteps, the best genealogy comes from being where your research targets lived and where their records are now (not necessarily the same place!).

Last week I had the good fortune to visit Warren County in western Indiana. Their historical society in Williamsport -- open only by appointment -- has indexed local newspaper clippings in binders beginning in 1864. They have obituaries indexed through 1950 and after 1969. Three volumes of complete cemetery inscriptions were completed in 1989, with a master index. Most of this material is not on line (some newspaper transcriptions, somewhat searchable, are in the Williamsport-Washington County Public Library's history database). Nor is it on film or in the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. You just have to be there.

Harold Henderson, "You just have to be there," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 7 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Midwesterners in the latest Genealogist

The Genealogist, published twice yearly, is one of the less well known of the top five US genealogy publications. The Spring 2013 issue includes two articles chronicling Midwesterners -- and Marjean Holmes Workman's article makes a significant revision in the Burris family: "Robert James Burris" and his wife "Susan Rebecca Miller" were not two people but four -- brothers who married sisters. In this first of two segments, this family of Burrises inhabited at least nine Ohio counties (Franklin, Madison, Ross, Hardin, Fayette, Van Wert, Marion, Paulding, and "Piqua" [Pickaway!]), eight Indiana counties (Jay, Adams, Jefferson, Grant, Allen, Montgomery, Hamilton, and Henry), and one county in Iowa (Guthrie). It pays to keep up with the latest research!

In the first installment of Gale Ion Harris's account, the James and Lydia Waters family were mainly in Kentucky but also in Clermont (now Brown) County, Ohio, and Bureau County, Illinois.

Marjean Holmes Workman, "The Family of Joseph Burris[s] of Maryland and Madison County, Ohio: Discovering an Unrecorded Marriage," The Genealogist 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 51-74.

Gale Ion Harris, "Descendants of James1 and Lydia (Guyton) Waters of Harford County, Maryland: Ohio River Valley Families," The Genealogist 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 75-98.

Harold Henderson, "Midwesterners in the latest Genealogist," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 5 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, June 3, 2013

Getting serious about genealogy

Where to go when you need to find people who take genealogy as seriously as you do?

As befits a volunteer-driven community with little formal, economic, or academic infrastructure, genealogy offers a variety of places, but they are not obvious to the newcomer -- nor to the long-time hobbyist becoming aware of additional dimensions and higher standards in this fascinating pursuit.

I've been involved in many of these, and I list them in a rough order beginning with the least demanding, costly, and formal. It's quite possible that I've omitted some. (Obviously it helps to be exposed to books, blogs, lectures, and webinars by the best genealogists, but I'm focusing on real and virtual places to meet others with the same interest.)

* Transitional Genealogists Forum, lurking or participating.

* Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation and Source Usage, the web site or ongoing symposium conducted by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

* volunteers in your area who are directly involved in transcribing, indexing, abstracting, or digitizing original records.

* the ProGen Study Group -- and its offspring, the Gen Proof Groups studying Tom Jones's new book Mastering Genealogical Proof. In general, any group(s) devoted to studying good genealogy texts, including NGSQ Articles Online Study Groups. and Dear Myrtle's MGP Study Groups.

* the Association of Professional Genealogists -- benefits of membership include local and virtual chapters, the members-only list, continuing education opportunities in business and genealogy, quarterly journal, monthly newsletter, webinars, and regular gatherings at national conferences.

* intensive institutes (usually lasting about a week, but not to be confused with genealogy conferences), notably the Institute of Genealogy & Historical Research (Samford University Library, Birmingham, June), Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (Utah Genealogical Association, January); Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (July); National Institute on Genealogical Research (National Archives, Washington DC, July); and the Forensic Genealogy Institute (Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, Dallas, April?).

* the Genealogical Research Program through Boston University's Center for Professional Education.

* the two genealogy credentialing bodies, BCG and ICAPGen. Unlike all of the above, these are not membership bodies open to all comers, but even those who don't choose to seek credentials can learn from their web sites and occasional public events.

Nobody designed this network of opportunities, and some will suit you better than others. Enjoy what you can!

Harold Henderson, "Getting serious about genealogy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 3 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]