Friday, August 29, 2014

Canoes, Kansas farmers, and the infinity of genealogy

Some folks argue that genealogy is limited because there are only so many records, only so much information to be found about the past; unlike people working in the experimental sciences, we can't create new data by conducting experiments.

I don't buy it, for two reasons:

One, this opinion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of genealogy. Even if information about the past is finite, there is no limit to the available evidence about the past, because there is no limit to the number of ideas people can have. New evidence is not just found by finding new records or new information. Evidence is also discovered is by seeing the same old information in a new light. (And yes, this subject will come up in Kimberly Powell's and my course in January at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.)

Two, there is more information out there than I can imagine, even after taking into account that there is more than I can imagine. Two from today:

(1) Kansas State University librarians are digitizing old agriculture magazines like crazy, benefiting from grants in the thousands, not millions. To be available in 2015 are Kansas Farmer (1863-1954), and after that Kansas 4‐H Journal (1955-1988), Kansas Future Farmer (1929-1979), and five additional newsletters and magazines.  (Hat tip to ResearchBuzz.) I believe it would be professional malpractice if I failed to disclose that one of the librarians involved is surnamed Farmer.

(2) What did your ancestor do at the canoe factory? If he (she?) worked at Old Town Canoe Company in Maine during much of the 20th century, you may be able to see when his hands touched a particular canoe keel. Check out these "canoe build sheets" and the associated discussion forum.

Harold Henderson, "Canoes, Kansas farmers, and the infinity of genealogy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 29 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Methodology Monday with Mysterious New Yorkers

In the April and July issues of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Perry Streeter doggedly pursues his likely 5-great grandparents, Aaron and Lucy ([-?-]) Beard, from western Connecticut and Massachusetts into southern New York. Both died in the 1820s. His 4-great grandfather Thomas Streeter married a woman named Louisa whose children mostly reported her born in Connecticut. A process of elimination in Connecticut's well-preserved but not perfect vital records suggested the Beards as her parents.

It did not get easier from there. From a genealogist's point of view, Aaron and Lucy were not ideal ancestors. But they did produce a handful of records. In 1777 Aaron was fined for not serving in the American Revolution from Salisbury, Litchfield County, Connecticut, just a month after their son Ai Frost Beard was born there. They also had a son named Parks. These distinctive names plus patterns of association among Baptists and among lumber-industry workers helped confirm the family as they moved around -- including, implicitly, Louisa, who produced no records after her birth. Aficionados of early-day travel will appreciate Streeter's analysis of the route of the Catskill Turnpike, which helped suggest an answer to the always relevant and always provocative question, "How did those two [in this case, Thomas Streeter and Louisa Beard] ever meet in the first place?"

Like many NYGBR articles, this one is followed by a substantial genealogical summary documenting the family beyond those involved in this intricate problem. Several went to southeastern Michigan. Not all families make colorful reading, but these do, and there's more to come in October -- or whenever you want to check out the author's extensive research-oriented web site.

Perry Streeter, "Was Louisa, Daughter of Aaron and Lucy ([-?-]) Beard, the Second Wife of Thomas Streeter of Steuben County, New York?," New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 145 (April 2014): 85-99, and (July 2014): 222-236.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with Mysterious New Yorkers," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 25 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grand slam genealogy blogging

James Tanner hits the ball out of the park with his blog post on how commercial enterprises sanitize genealogy for mass consumption. ("In a society that values wealth and beauty above any other values, genealogists are definitely counter-cultural.") In fairness I would have to add that large noncommercial genealogy enterprises have been known to do the same thing.

Diane Boumenot does the same thing in a different way. She took her home-state genealogy quarterly on the airplane, read it more thoroughly than ever, and found plenty of reasons to keep doing so.We can all do this even though few of us have a state publication the equal of Rhode Island Roots.

Apropos of nothing, this 1936 model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex -- courtesy of the American Historical Association -- strikes me as scarier than more detailed reproductions. [22 August: This link should now work properly.]

Harold Henderson, "Grand slam genealogy blogging," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 21 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, August 18, 2014

Methodology Monday with three generations in three pages

Not all articles in top genealogy periodicals have to be long or involve a convoluted tangle of indirect evidence. If you're having a short-attention-span day, Arlene V. Jennings's recent inquiry into the mother of Jane (Fife) Smart (b. 1769) is quick and to the point in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

Sometimes good methodology is just about knowing where to look. In this case two parallel record sets give varying results: no name for Jane's mother in one, and two different surnames for her in the other. Probate files for her father and husbands provide the "glue" to piece together vital records, identifying Jane as a daughter of her mother's middle (second) marriage, and reaching back to Jane's mother's mother's surname in the early 1700s.

Arlene V. Jennings, "Jane Fife's Mother, Elizabeth (Sowersby) Stather Fife Hought," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 93-95.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with three generations in three pages," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 18 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New York Thursday with Elizabeth (Bassett) Porter's mystery in the July NYGBR

How could Elizabeth (Bassett) Porter (1798-1855) be included in her parents' family Bible record but never mentioned as an heir in her father's 1876 probate proceedings -- especially when New York law required all heirs to be named? In the July issue of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record I tell the story and try to cope with the conflicting evidence by confirming Elizabeth's ongoing role in the family, and looking into how probates were handled in Madison County, New York, in the 1870s.

NYGBS members can read this and other new and continued articles at the society's a preview and await the physical issue's arrival in their genealogy library. Non-members can become members here.
web site; non-members can access

Elizabeth was the husband of "Col." Harry Porter (a private in the War of 1812) and the oldest sister of my mother-in-law's great-grandfather Samuel Clark Bassett. One curiosity of this story is that Harry and Elizabeth in the late 1830s settled in the same small Illinois town where I grew up in the 1950s -- and are buried three blocks from our house!

Like most NYGBR articles, this one has a double purpose: to resolve a knotty problem (highlighting a prized New York record type) and to document a New York family. The documentation (genealogical summary) occupies more space than the problem-resolution part and is continued in later issues. Many thanks to editor Karen Mauer Green for her relentless help and encouragement in bringing this project into print.

Harold Henderson, “A Missing Heir: Reconnecting Elizabeth (Bassett) Porter to Her Parents, Lewis and Dorcas (Hoxie) Bassett” [Part 1], New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 145 (July 2014): 165-184.

Harold Henderson, "New York Thursday with Elizabeth (Bassett) Porter's Mystery in the July NYGBR," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 14 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

Quick hits: August, finishing, choosing, researching, and genealogy management

* Early August: the absolute best time to visit a university library.

* As genealogists, we don't finish enough things. It's as if we run from framing one house to framing another. But the finish work takes longer than anything, and sometimes it reveals the quality of the framing. That's one reason I'm in favor of trying for a credential -- or just writing thorough articles. Finishing teaches lessons that don't come any other way.

* On the Genealib list, Barbara J. Hill recently recalled one of her top priorities when buying for the California Genealogical Society's library: a book of local newspaper abstracts ("worth its weight in gold"). Not only are many small newspapers not digitized, even that may not help. Often the result of worn type on cheap newsprint may be such that only humans, not OCR, can decipher it.

* Not so many years ago, I would raid a library by way of the copy machine, then carry and sort and label the paper. Now I scan the pages with a smart phone app and try to email them to myself and then sort and label them from one program into another. I think I'm saving money -- not so sure about saving time, at least until I can refine the process. (It's also often an improvement on just taking notes.)

* Genealogy management and administration is almost a missing specialty (even with FGS in the vanguard). And I'm pretty sure one tenet of it would be not to try to do at the last minute tasks that in their nature require considerable preparation. Another tenet would be that its best practitioners deserves the same respect that DNA specialists and high-end editors and tech wizards receive. It's getting to be too important to be a sacrificial sideline.

* Don't miss Jill Morelli's new blog post, "What Kind of an Historian Are You?"

Harold Henderson, "Quick hits," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 11 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Methodology Monday with Elizabeth Shown Mills, the FAN club, and DNA

No, I will not retrace all the steps of Elizabeth Shown Mills's argument in the June National Genealogical Society Quarterly, "Testing the FAN Principle against DNA: Zilphy (Watts) Price Cooksey Cooksey of Georgia and Mississippi." But the article is significant in more ways than size (23 pages):

* It builds on previously published hard-won research. Two of the five generations discussed here were documented in previous articles. Most of us begin with some woolly family lore and work from there. That is the first step, and Mills does discuss family lore here. But building on prior research is what scholarly disciplines do. And it will become increasingly prevalent in genealogy as DNA evidence becomes ubiquitous.

* As the title says, it uses both documentary and DNA evidence. At least six previous NGSQ articles using both kinds of evidence were published in:

June 2012 (Warren Pratt, "Finding the Father of Henry Pratt of Southeastern Kentucky," vol. 100:85-104), 

June 2011 (Judy Kellar Fox, "Documents and DNA Identify a Little-Known Lee Family in Virginia, vol. 99:85-96),

September 2009 (Daniela Moneta, "Virginia Pughs and North Carolina Wests: A Genetic Link from Slavery in Kentucky," vol. 97:179-94),

March 2008 (Daniela Moneta, "Identifying the Children of David Pugh and Nancy Minton of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee," vol. 96:13-22), and

December 2005, a themed issue on genealogy and genetics (Anita A. Lustenberger, "David Meriwether: Descendant of Nicholas Meriweather? A DNA Study," 93:269-282; Donn Devine, "Sorting Relationships among Families with the Same Surname: An Irish-American DNA Study," 93:283-293 with a brief September 2007 update 95:196). 

These earlier articles used Y-DNA (male line). As far as I know, Mills breaks new NGSQ ground here by using evidence from both mitochondrial (female-line) DNA and autosomal DNA (the 22 chromosome pairs that recombine with each generation).

* Mills builds an intricate documentary case with indirect evidence that Zilphy was actually "Lucy" (the name "copied from an old family record") daughter of Judith and Rev. John Watts, and that Zilphy's daughter Nancy was the mother of Elmira Parks -- based on approximate dates, multiple associations, multiple name duplications, and an analysis of handwritten L and Z in this time period. If you want the details, join the National Genealogical Society or visit a good genealogy library.

* Mills does not ask or answer the question, "Would these relationships be proved if we did not have the DNA evidence?" She assembles the documentary evidence, then the DNA evidence, which confirms it. THE DNA EVIDENCE COULDN'T EVEN HAVE BEEN COLLECTED WITHOUT DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE SUGGESTING WHO TO TEST. The question of how DNA evidence functions within the Genealogical Proof Standard is for another day. Enough examples of this quality may render the question academic. The specific uses of DNA evidence in these articles is already under discussion among genetic and documentary genealogists.

 Although much genetic genealogy is necessarily shrouded in confidential situations, there are plenty of good publishable cases that have yet to be written up. Seven articles in nine years isn't enough! The more high-quality peer-reviewed articles we have, the easier it will be for us to learn more about how these two streams of evidence can converge. We need more people crossing the documentary-DNA line from both sides.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Testing the FAN Principle against DNA: Zilphy (Watts) Price Cooksey Cooksey of Georgia and Mississippi," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (June 2014): 129-152.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with Elizabeth Shown Mills, the FAN club, and DNA," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 4 August 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]