Thursday, July 31, 2014

Books: everyday life in three centuries

One of the pleasures of a national institute or conference is the chance to browse and buy good books. I bought the following four from Maia's Books at GRIP last week. I ended up choosing mostly books that told stories -- but that did so in a knowledgeable historical context, not just for quaintness' sake. We'll see. Hopefully this will not be the last you hear of them!

Stephanie Grauman Wolf, As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000). Most of my mother-in-law's ancestors and a fraction of my mother's and father-in-law's ancestors were around for this.

Harvey Green, The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000). Parents, grandparents, and most great-grandparents were active in these years. Growing up in the 1950s was not entirely different, in that much of the built environment was still there from the 1920s, but I could easily assume similarities that were not there.

Joan M. Jensen, Calling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850-1925 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006). In-laws were in Wisconsin early, whether from England, New England, New York, or Pennsylvania.

David T. Hawkings, Pauper Ancestors: A Guide to the Records Created by the Poor Laws in England and Wales (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2011). In 1819, my two-year-old great-great-grandfather's impoverished family was removed from the parish of Long Bennington in Lincolnshire to the parish of Teigh in Rutlandshire.

Harold Henderson, "Books: everyday life in three centuries," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 31 July  2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Saturday, July 26, 2014

GRIP 2014: Leading with DNA

The nationwide moveable village of genealogists appeared in the form of the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh on Sunday the 20th and disassembled Friday the 25th. In between, friendships were renewed, projects discussed, books were bought, business cards were exchanged, genealogy TV was watched, sleep was in short supply, and a lot of teaching and learning happened in six courses.

This third annual session of the institute arguably places GRIP in a leadership position among genealogy institutes, as it offered the first ever full five-day course on genetic genealogy, coordinated by Debbie Parker Wayne, with top-notch faculty CeCe Moore and Blaine Bettinger. (Who knew that three collaborating instructors could be so good in such different ways?)

The trio taught 73 students in two sections and were generously applauded by the students at the final session. The course lived up to its title of "Practical Genetic Genealogy," based on biology but focusing on multiple genealogical applications, and will be offered twice at GRIP in 2015. (Note: in January the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy will include a similar course as well as the first-ever advanced DNA course.)

I took the course as a comparative newcomer to the subject, and I am now astonished to recall  discussions (not very long ago) about whether there was really enough information to fill a five-day course on the subject of DNA! Clearly there has been enough information for quite a while. Now, if anything, there is too much material to pack into one week, especially when one tries to include the exercises and workshops that newcomers need to sharpen their understanding and skills.

Six years ago DNA was still an optional side order in genealogy, useful at most in researching only the direct male and female lines -- a small fraction of our ancestry. With increased computing power, technological innovations, and deeper understanding of autosomal DNA, it is now no longer a side order but part of the main course. Moore demonstrated the power last January, at the Professional Management Conference of the Association of Professional Genealogists. (For instance, by comparing the DNA of second cousins, genealogists can often identify specific segments as the "genetic signature" of the cousins' shared great-grandparents.) That taste drew many researchers to GRIP this summer

As Wayne said in the concluding session at GRIP, there was a time when genealogists complained about having to learn to use computers; now they're indispensable.

I expect that similarly, and in an equally short time, knowing and applying DNA evidence will be as commonplace and integral to proving our conclusions as computers have become, and as property and probate records have long been. For individual genealogists and genealogy educators alike, there is no alternative to keeping up.

Photo credit: GRIP Facebook page with permission

Harold Henderson, "GRIP 2014: Leading with DNA," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 25 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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.]