Thursday, 5 March 2015

Digital preservation, or why I worry about Evernote

Digital preservation ensures that the digital information we have today can still be accessed in the future. Before becoming a professional genealogist, I worked in the IT department of the National Archives in the Netherlands where I picked up some knowledge about digital preservation that I hope will be useful to you. Most people think that all you need to do is make back-ups, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Four issues with digital preservation

There are four main issues with digital preservation:
  1. Files get corrupted when hardware fails. Think crashed hard drives or demagnetized floppy disks. Or your house burning with your backups inside. 
  2. Files stored on obsolete media. Who still has a 5 1/4" floppy drive? Many new computers don't even come with a CD/DVD player anymore. 
  3. Files are in obsolete file formats. For example, a WordStar 1.0 or WordPerfect 4.2 document. 
  4. Files get lost because of human behavior. For example, files on hard drives that nobody bothered to copy before recycling the computer or emails and document that get deleted when you loose access to your account because you change jobs or providers. People also use files because they don't understand how their cloud storage solution (Dropbox, Google Drive) works and don't realize that deleting a file from their hard drive may also delete it from the cloud. 
With paper information, you have to actively do something to make it go away (throw it out). If you don't do anything, it will get preserved in your attic or wherever you saw it last. 
With digital information, you have to actively make sure that it gets preserved, otherwise it will be lost. 

Back-ups only help so much...

Back-ups can help combat issues number 1, 2 and 4 (corrupt files, obsolete media and human error). A good backup strategy is the 3-2-1 rule: have 3 copies of each file, on 2 different types of media, 1 of which is stored in a different geographical location. By actively making backups of things you want to preserve, you ensure that this information is not lost accidentally. 

A good backup strategy will give you access to your files. But whether they are in a format that you can use is another matter.

Different types of file formats

The way a file is stored on the computer is called a file format. A file format tells the software how to open the file. Examples of file formats are .jpg (JPEG image file), .docx (Microsoft Word) and .pdf (Portable Document File). 

Digital preservation problems start when you have a file that is stored in a file format that you cannot open anymore. You may have a WordPerfect 4.2 file, but you may not have WordPerfect anymore. Perhaps you can convert the file, but information may be lost along the way. Or you may use an old computer (or emulate one) and run your old software. 

The type of file format determines how hard it will be to open in the future. Some file formats are proprietary and require that vendor's software to open them. .FTM files are a good example, the file format that Family Tree Maker uses. You can't open an FTM file in another program.

Other file formats use open standards. An open standard means that the specification of the standard is published and everybody is allowed to use it to create their own programs. Gedcom is an example of an open standard: dozens of tools can read a Gedcom file, which is why it is still being used to exchange information between different genealogy programs.

Most software offer a way to save files in a different file format, which often includes open standards, like the Gedcom export function in genealogical software. You have that option as long as you can use the software. But you may not be able to run that software after your next operating systems upgrade, if your license expires or if the vendor goes out of business.

The problem with programs like Evernote

Cloud-based solutions (like Evernote) give people a false sense of security because they think everything is "backed up" in the cloud. That is not really true though: Evernote synchronizes, which is different than a backup. If you delete a note in Evernote, it will be gone from all your devices, because Evernote synchronizes your information. That is different from information that is backed up, because then you will be able to restore the backup. 

Another problem with programs like Evernote is that you are totally dependent on the vendor. I have no idea if I will be able to access my Evernote files if Evernote goes out of business ten years from now and the software stops working. I use the web version as well as the Windows version. If Evernote goes out of business, I won't be able to use the web version but will probably still have access to the Windows version, at least for a while. But the information are all stored in Evernote-specific .EXB files on my hard drive. As far as I know, there are no other programs than Evernote to get my stuff out except copy-paste it.

[BTW, I'm using Evernote as an example because it's very popular among genealogists but most software, especially cloud-based software has the same issues]

My advice: combine solid backups with migration to open file formats

For information that is important to you, that you want generations from now to be able to open, my advice is to make sure to save them in a file format that has an open standard. For example, I save scans of my family photos as TIFF, not PSD (the Photoshop file format). A hundred years from now, any programmer can take the TIFF scans and create a viewer for the amazing devices that they will have then. But Photoshop might not be around anymore. 

This does not mean I don't use other files as well. I use Family Tree Maker and RootsMagic for my research. That is no problem since I am aware of the issues and will periodically create a GEDCOM and put that in my backup locations using the 3-2-1 rule. I also keep the FTM files, because conversion often loses some of the information. But if for some reason I don't have FTM anymore, or the old program doesn't work on my shiny new operating system, I will still be able to access at least a large part of the information.

More information

If you want to learn more about how archives professionals deal with digital preservation, check out the website of the Open Preservation Foundation. For a more lighthearted introduction, view the rest of the videos by Team Digital Preservation on Youtube.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Finding Your Desk - Another Take on Organization

Many of us spent part of February either attending or viewing sessions at RootsTech/FGS 2015. We learned about new technology, new resources, and new ways of looking at or working with our family history research. One of the more interesting exercises at this conference was to engage in "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." (I'm talking about our genealogy management programs, spreadsheet programs, and filing systems - what were you thinking?!)

Why were we getting together to discuss software and apps, spreadsheets and image software, filing systems and work-spaces? Because it is always interesting to see how others do things! We also want to make sure that no one has a better, easier, or faster system for filing, maintaining, and retrieving all our family history finds. So many genealogists and family historians have been at this for decades and they either have some truly wonderful ideas and are quite organized or they have piles of information and mention that getting organized is the next thing on their to-do list.

In my case I did not start doing genealogy until 2007 and the first thing I did was check a few books out of the library on how to do genealogy and sign up for the American Records track at the Salt Lake Institute for Genealogy. Paula Stuart Warren was my first teacher. At that seminar, I asked about digital filing and got strange looks from most of the other attendees. Today everyone is surprised if someone hasn't scanned all their paper files!

make a plan and work your plan!
Image courtesy of ID-10061774 digitalart

Luckily for me, some genealogists who had been at it for awhile offered to sit down with me and gave me some wonderful advice.

  • get a genealogy management program and learn how to use it (it doesn't matter which program as it is highly individual - but kick those tires, take a few programs on a test drive, and then make a decision)
  • don't do a smash and grab with online or offline family trees (start with your own family and work with your own records - it helps you understand the process and working with known people, places and dates gives you an opportunity to have a useful sample file; don't rely on others' work - consider everything you see online as clues on your search but rely on your own research and work product)
  • the best filing system is the one you actually use (you can have all the greatest systems, color-coding, fancy folders, etc., but if it is too much trouble or too involved it just won't happen and then you will have those dreaded filing piles)
  • take the time, on a regular basis, to clean up and organize your work space (I learned this with cooking - cleaning as you go is much easier than looking at a huge mess in the kitchen later)

I took their advice to heart and although I don't have a perfect system, I have a perfect system for me (and that's what important). My genealogy filing system was in its early stages when our family decided to organize and scan all our family slides and photos a few years ago. We did some serious research (you have probably figured out we love to research, plan and organize things in my family - both parents are, and always have been, list makers and with eight children my mom had to be organized!). We decided to spend the money to have our slides and photographs professionally scanned. We met with the lead person, asked him about logistics, and took the time to come up with a plan. The company did the "hard work" of cleaning, scanning and digitizing everything and then the process moved on to us to incorporate metadata and tagging in our software of choice (this is where it is helpful to have lots of siblings). It was a great division of labor because he and his team knew about scanning and we knew who our family members were, as well as the dates and occasions that were reflected in the images.

Now everyone in our family has a DVD set of the early years (about 11,000 photos and slides), we have a family vault (on an external hard drive backed up on another one). We can easily add to the vault and provide scans when requested by extended family members - which is helpful with reunions, marriages, graduations, etc. Did I mention that we also use both our images and my documents with some of our creative family endeavors? I was very happy to see Panstoria at the RootsTech Exhibit Hall. I love their software - Historian (the vault where you store and work with images) and Artisan (the playground where you make posters, cards, scrapbooks, etc., using images from your vault).

I took the lessons learned from that scanning exercise and applied them to my genealogy filing system (online and offline - it helps to mirror your systems). Since it is the same idea, I have a process in place that I use and it works. And that is what it is all about. The key to any of this is thinking about how you want to use your data or your images, how the search feature of your operating system works, and not get too obsessed with folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders. I agree with Jill Ball and others - KISS Keep It Simple Sweetheart (not the version I heard!) Definitely think about the long term, plan, then execute on a small level, tweak, revise, then JUST DO IT, and stick with it.

Thanks to Jill Ball, Pauleen Cass and Julie Goucher for sharing their experiences with file organization (Jill - sorry I missed your GeniAus hangout - will watch it on YouTube as I love organization). I am happy to say that no animals were injured in the writing of this blog (you mentioned something about skinning cats in your blog post). I will admit to checking out coggle after reading Pauleen's recent post (not quite a shiny penny as I have been playing with the idea of mind mapping so thanks Pauleen for the link - coggle passed my first test - it was easy to figure out!). I am making use of a new-to-me idea that is a bullet journal. I found myself using a variety of online reminders that I simply ignored or pushed off, and writing notes on blank pieces of paper which added to my filing pile (oh yes I have one because I am not perfect). I decided to go old school and write all my tasks, appointments, meeting notes, books read, expenses, to-dos, and project ideas in one notebook in a day by day format (Julie - I think this is what you have been doing for years!). So far so good. At least I know where to find everything (and it fits in my bag so it's all good).

My advice - think about the output you want as it will determine your input. While some refer to it as garbage in, garbage out, I prefer to think of it as gold in, gold out.

gold in, gold out - think about it before you do it!
Image courtesy of ID-10067079 stuart miles

Until next month,

Monday, 2 March 2015

There's more than one way to skin a cat....

... and there is more than one way to "do genealogy".

Many family historians are hung up on "doing the right thing" but, just as there is more one way to skin a cat, there is no one right way to do genealogy. This applies to all stages of whichever research process we use and the tools we use to facilitate and record our research. It depends on why we are doing the research in the first place, is it just for fun, is it as part of a collaborative exercise with family or society members or is it to prepare a detailed report to fulfil a client contract? Constantly in my thoughts is the statistic shared by Curt Witcher at Rootstech 2015 that between 82%-90% of people who do family history do not belong to a Society but go it alone. While some of these folk will devour online genealogical educational opportunities and purchase many geneabooks and guides many of them will probably work happily in isolation. They will be doing family history research their way.

As for the Research Process I stick with the Australian one I have used for years, it can be applied to all things from making a peanut butter sandwich, to learning to ride a bicycle to genealogy research. I notice that Michael John Neill also advocates another oldie: Polya's Four Step Process which also appeals to me. I would suspect that most family historians don't follow a particular published process while others may follow one specifically developed for genealogical research.

I see at least one query each week in the online forums I inhabit that asks for suggestions on which is the best genealogy program to use. Most of the answers are suggestions on which particular program to use or avoid but do not address the issue of what unique features the programs suggested offer to fit the requester's individual needs. Of course beginners often don't know what they want out of a program, in this case I think they should avoid the software evengelists' suggestions and turn to a few trusted friends or members of their family history society for advice. Another excellent resource is Gensoftreviews, one could probably choose with confidence any of the programs that appear in this site's Annual Gold Award List. The pruned down free packages or 30 day trials from various vendors  also give one an opportunity to try before you buy.

Keeping track of one's research is another question that pops up regularly. The evangelists come out in force to answer these questions by suggesting their way as the only way but there are many ways. I would suggest that if you are confident with a means of recording (be it pencil and paper or on a computer) then use that or if you are up to a challenge then select and learn a piece of software that will do the job for you.

My genealogy software program is rather sophisticated so I am able to keep my research notes, research log and to-do items within the program. Before I switched to this program I used Excel or Google Sheets (if sharing with others) for these tasks, as I love spreadsheets I still use them for all sorts of geneatasks.

I am an Evernote junkie and use this tool for many personal tasks and a few geneajobs like managing my blogs and details of my genimates. It is an excellent tool for keeping track of your research and making it available on any device you may use but it takes a  while to become a comfortable and confident user. There are groups on Facebook and Google+ that can assist you with this.

If you find that you can organise efficiently and effectively with pencil and paper and are happy with that method then keep doing it your way. My advice is to find a method that works for you and use it consistently.Whatever works for you should be the bottom line.

Taming the paper and digital mountains of files we have created while researching is another hot issue. Do you have a huge Piling System that is crying out to be organised? If you can find whatever it is you need within a couple of minutes then that system works for you but what about those that take over once you turn up your toes? Will they be able to negotiate and make sense of your folders and files?

If you keep digital copies of your photos and documents in your genealogy software program and have them linked to appropriate individuals then others should be able to find and retrieve them. I haven't done this yet but my program copes admirably with this. I use a very simple system of Surname (and other) Folders for both my digital and physical files. This works for me but may not be sophisticated enough for other users (note to self - update four year old post - my filing system is dynamic). I ascribe to the KISS Principle (Keep it Simple Sweetheart - I prefer Sweetheart to Stupid ). I would suggest that whatever system you use is easy to adapt as your needs and experience grow.

Storing those valuable original documents safely should be a priority. Make sure they are digitised and that your digital files are backed up in several places.

And then there is sharing. I am an advocate of Geneablogging for sharing ancestor stories and putting out Cousin Bait. To this end I also have a personal website where I share the details of my ancestors, both of these have brought me valuable cousin connections. I have concerns with printed family histories because they are not dynamic like online publications. Recently Mr GeniAus used my research to compile a written history for his brother's significant birthday. The delight and interest of my brother-in-law and family as they perused the publication demonstrated the value of providing  family members with a printed version of their family history. However you do it please record your family stories in a format that will survive and be accessible for future generations.

So what I have been banging on about for the past few paragraphs is that there is no one correct way to "do family history". I hope that, as members of a collaborative and supportive community, we respect the efforts of our fellow researchers no matter which way they approach their research.

As individuals we should approach our study of family history in a way that suits our personalities and purposes.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Transcription Toolbox

In the early 1980s my grandmother taught me to crochet.  We worked together on a set of lacey mats for my dressing table.  Gran did the larger central mat while I worked on a smaller mat with matching pattern.  To facilitate the creative endeavor she wrote out the pattern for me to follow.
Crochet pattern transcribed by my gran (Mabel Adams, nee Coulson 1910-1991), the crocheted mat I made from the pattern, and the crochet hook used

For clarity, legibility and accuracy, Gran wrote in upper case, but the abbreviations and terminology would not be meaningful to someone who does not know crochet.  Gran's normal cursive (joined up) handwriting was a different style to mine and I remember thinking that some of her letters looked slightly odd.

Learning to read old handwriting, understanding why a document was created and knowing about its subject are key to genealogical source analysis. 

Why transcribe?

Handwriting recognition is a rapidly developing technology, but it may tempt us to be too lazy to learn about old handwriting.  Optical character recognition (OCR) was hailed as the solution for printed text, but the results are often not very accurate, particularly with poor quality print and older fonts.  These technologies are useful, but I think the "no more indexing" claim by the runners-up in the RootsTech 2015 Innovator Showdown , ArgusSearch, is misguided.

Apart from making a digital copy, transcribing documents fully makes you examine the details closely, which helps you better understand the contents.

Palaeography Lessons

Palaeography (also spelled paleography) is the study of old handwriting.  Fortunately there is a range of online tutorials that can help us learn to read scripts used in previous centuries.

The UK National Archives tutorials are an excellent practical introduction, with exercises for you to try.  Have some fun with the ducking stool gameScottish from the National Records of Scotland offers practical exercises and a weekly poser.  English Handwriting 1500-1700 provides a good background information and transcription conventions.

These resources cover the period from 1500 to 1800.  For genealogists, learning to read secretary hand, a script widely used for administrative and legal purposes is important.

As handwriting developed from earlier scripts, an understanding of those scripts is helpful.  Nottingham University's Medieval Handwriting provides interactive exercises and information on understanding medieval documents.  Further early modern and medieval material is available at Palindex. DigiPal is a fabulous resource for very early scripts from Anglo-Saxon and Norman times (1000-1100).

Latin was both an international and legal language.  In England it was used in legal documents up to 1733.  Legal Latin is often heavily abbreviated which makes deciphering it a challenge.  A knowledge of the law at the time the document was written is greatly helpful.  Fortunately, legal documents tend to follow a pattern, which helps us predict what it might contain.  Once again the UK National Archives has good introduction to Latin, and Latin PalaeographyWhittaker's Words is an online Latin dictionary.

Decoding the script and abbreviations, and knowing what to expect are all pre-requisites for a quality transcript, just like the crochet pattern needed knowledge and skill to produce a finished article.

Many of the resources listed here include interactive practice.  Practice really does make perfect transcriptions.

Transcription Tools

Armed with knowledge gained from the resources above, you are ready to start transcribing.  For access reasons, it is common for genealogists to work from a digital image or a photocopy of the original manuscript.  Enlargement and zooming in on detail is an advantage of a good quality digital image.  A large screen or two screens can help make the image and transcript easier to see and read.  Before you rush to buy a second screen, check the ports on your computer and TV.  I connect to my TV using a HDMI cable.  You can use image program like Irfanview or Photoshop to manipulate images and a word processor, such as Word.  Some people find manipulating two programs in different windows clumsy.

Transcript 2.5 puts the image and transcript in a single window and provides basic image manipulation and text formatting tools.  Some people find it suits them very well, but I did not find it much easier to use.  Try both approaches and find what suits you.  For me, the deal breaker is that the formatting is not completely compatible with Word.

A plain or formatted text transcript is a good start, but I want a more sophisticated transcription tool:
  • Annotations note layout, corrections, obscured text and non-text parts of the manuscript.
  • Semantic mark-up, tags that tell the computer what the text means, enable further analysis.
  • Support for non-standard characters, such as the thorn and yogh that appear in 1700s manuscripts.

A more detailed explanation of why I want these features is explained in the worked example of a property document.

T-PEN transcription interface

T-PEN, Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation is an academic project intended for digital humanities scholars.  The web based tool includes image analysis functions that highlight lines of text.  The user-friendly interface presents each line of text for transcription.  Annotations, special characters and XML encoding are supported.  XML encoding is an exciting feature because it offers the potential of semantic mark-up.  This is the kind of transcription tool I would like to see developed and adapted for genealogy.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Walter Hindmarsh - using enlightened Scottish records for an Englishman

Walter Hindmarsh, like his father and brothers, was a shepherd.  Unlike his brothers who walked the Northumberland hills he left England and hopped the border to Scotland.
Walter was born to William Hindmarsh and Margaret Grieve in a Northumberland farm.  The family home was called Carshope, in Alwinton Parish just south of the England/ Scotland border; he was baptised in January 1792 which wasn't too long after his birth when comparing it with census returns.
I knew from various sources including this one:
Inserted here by desire the children to William Hindmarsh and Margaret Grieve his wife in Carshope, Parish of Alwinton
William son born 7/10/1790
Walter son born 20/1/1792
Thomas son born 6/1/1794
Elizabeth daughter born 25/11/1795
Adam son born 1/10/1797
Jane daughter born 29/4/1802
Alexander son born 29/5/1805
All baptised Harbottle
that Walter was one of seven brothers, but so far I've only been able to confirm the names of five of them: William, Walter, Thomas, Alexander and John (John was noted elsewhere as the 7th son).  They also had two sisters, Elizabeth and Jane; Jane is my great-great-great grandmother. 
Photo of Alwinton, Northumberland, by Peter Reed
I have been using FindMyPast to search for my Northumberland family over the last couple of months.  Their specific record set of transcriptions by Northumberland and Durham Family History Society was one of the reasons I took out a subscription and it's been fantastically helpful.  But sadly I drew a blank on Walter and feared he'd died young.  However I tried searching for him on Ancestry and up popped a reference to an English couple called Walter and Isabella Hindmarsh, living in Morebattle parish, Roxburgh county in south Scotland.
Although this reference came from Ancestry in Utah it says that it had been transcribed from source, the General Register Office for Scotland. However there was no scan of the original document.  This, then, was a job for the Scotland's People website.
Photo of a Scotland's People card
Although I'm English, by the time I took up family history I was living in Scotland.  It was pre-internet (olden days!) so I didn't have access to any online resources or any English ones at all so I spent a few fascinating pre-motherhood years learning about my husband's Scottish family from occasional day-trips to the GRO in Edinburgh and a few visits to Argyll.
After a few years away from genealogy my interest was kick-started again and I had the chance to use sites such as Genes Reunited, Ancestry and more recently FindMyPast.
But whether paper or pixels, it's a huge shock working with English records after you're used to working with Scottish ones.  The amount of information provided is so much greater - so much more useful - in Scottish records.
So I found my uncle Walter in the 1841, 1851 and 1861 Scottish census returns, just as I would for his brothers in the English returns, and on Scotland's People could [pay credits to] view a scan of the original document.  But I could find no record of his marriage to Isabella and could not prove that Morebattle Walter and Alwinton Walter were one and the same man. In both England and Scotland at that pre-census time there was no formal registration so I will have to search through parish/non-conformist registers to find their marriage.
In 1841 William and Isabella were barely over the border in Scotland - Kelsocleugh Farm sits in the strange lumpy borders landscape just north of English Alwinton and the Northumberland National Park. There was also another family living at that farm, William Hall and his family.
Towards Morbattle, by Keith Holmes on Flickr
The 1851 census for Morebattle describes William as an Ag Lab (Agricultural Labourer) and with him and Isabella live a married Ag Lab servant called James Young and an unmarried house servant called Agnes Hall.
Isabella was older than Walter and she died some point between the 1851 and 1861 censuses, I haven't yet identified when and where.
In 1861 Walter is living with his domestic servant called Margaret Fiddes in Yetholm, at the Cross Keys.
And then I hit the jackpot: I found Walter's death certificate.
View of hills from Kirk Yetholm,
photo by Andrew Bowden
Most obligingly for my purposes, Walter had died in Scotland, specifically in the ancient town of Kirk Yetholm 
Interestingly Kirk Yetholm is on some main roads to England (see this Old Roads of Scotland website) so if he wasn't driving sheep along them, he perhaps trudged or rode them to find work.
Walter didn't make it to the 1871 census.  He died on the fourth of November 1869 at 8am, after being ill for three years with a cerebral spinal disease.  Curiously Margaret Fiddes, the informant, who was present at his death, had her relation to him noted as Inmate.  Looking back at the census returns to write this blog post I see that a Margaret Fiddes was a female servant on Kelsocleugh Farm back in 1841 and his domestic servant in  in 1861. Intriguing....  I'm catching myself looking at the certificate again, seriously wondering if it says Intimate, not Inmate.  Maybe she was just a very loyal servant.
And the identifying on the certificate of Walter's late wife as Isabella Hindmarsh, maiden surname Hall, would suggest that their 1841 neighbours on that farm were Isabella's brother and his family.
But the key piece of information that I was looking for was the names of his parents: father, William Hindmarsh, shepherd (deceased) and Margaret Hindmarsh, maiden surname Grieve (deceased). Proof.  All that information (and more) from one death certificate, it's amazing. Even the English certificates I've spent a tenner on ordering have nothing as comprehensive as this.
My favourite piece of information is definitely the mother's maiden surname - what respect for women, acknowledging they had an identity pre-marriage!
© Original text copyright Lynne Black, 21 February 2015

Friday, 20 February 2015

Genetic Genealogy at RootsTech and FGS 2015

When selecting my topic priorities among the diverse and tempting array of presentations at RootsTech and FGS 2015, I focused heavily on genetic genealogy. I’ve heard Australian presenter Kerry Farmer explain DNA at various times, which was a great foundation. I’ve also been trying to come to grips with the complexities of testing more and more in recent months. 

The RootsTech and FGS combined conference seemed like a great opportunity for furthering my learning – after all there’s nothing like “try, try again” when you’re dealing with a complex concept.

So which talks did I attend on this topic? The Syllabus had a synopsis of each of these talks so it’s possible for all attendees to check out the core content in advance. Unfortunately it’s only accessible by those who were registered for the conference(s). However, at present you can order the sound recording of any of the Federation of Genealogical Societies talks for $US10 – a lot cheaper than the trip to the US.

RT – Genetic Genealogy – the birth of the DNA revolution – Bennett Greenspan

RT – Exploring family stories with DNA from PBS’s “Finding your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr –CeCe Moore

RT - Getting started in Genetic Genealogy – Diahan Southard (video recorded by RootsTech and currently available online here)

FGS – Genetic Genealogy Standards – CeCe Moore

FGS – Determining Kinship with DNA – Angie Bush (an excellent talk which was recorded by FGS and available to download for $US10)

I walked away from these presentations feeling I was on the right track with the understanding levels I'd reached, but also that there was a great deal more yet to learn, especially about mapping and phasing. It’s always good to hear different presenters too, because sometimes you twig to the message better from one person’s style than another.

Apart from learning the building blocks of DNA, these were my take-home messages from the different speakers:

  • Have a plan for your DNA testing – work out what genealogical problem you want to resolve and which test is best suited for that task. I think I initially had unrealistic expectations of what the tests could achieve.
  • Spread your testing across relations from different branches as that will help with mapping your DNA.
  • Ensure you meet the ISOGG standards in terms of confidentiality of data you obtain, protecting privacy and obtaining informed consent from those you wish to test. I know I’ve been remiss in the latter part of this previously, so that will be something I’ll be focusing on.
  •  Why not test? If you are concerned that “big brother is watching” or you don’t feel comfortable with your data being online even when it’s only accessible to your matches. If this doesn’t bother you, then go for it.
  •   You need a really good understanding of cousin relationships since at each genealogical level you inherit different percentages of DNA.
  •  Each testing company (Ancestry, FamilyTree DNA and 23 and Me) has different strengths and weaknesses. The gurus tend to test with each of them, but most of us would find that too much an impost on our budgets, so pick and choose which suits you best.
  •  Increasingly the companies are providing the option to link with online family trees – not sure this is a step I want to take.
  •   Access to the full suite of DNA tools with Ancestry requires a subscription.
  •  Read, read and read some more: read as many blogs as you can, the ISOGG website, and relevant books. On the flight home I started in on this book by Emily Aulicino which I’d downloaded. Not sure it was a great combination with jetlag and long-flight-brain but it is very helpful and needs a LOT more thought. 

I'm sure I went into DNA testing several years ago without an appropriate understanding of what I could achieve...or more relevantly, what I might not achieve. As Angie Bush “DNA doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t tell the stories and it doesn't tell the 'why'”. We need traditional genealogy to match up with genetic genealogy.

My big tie-breaker was testing my mother’s DNA, giving me clear DNA links to my maternal line, through matrilineal DNA and also autosomal: by default the rest of my autosomal should be my father’s since my parents don’t come from an endogamous population. Further advantage came from a couple of known cousins testing in their own right, and being able to link into known genealogical links.

I have used Family Tree DNA for my family’s tests and have been happy with their product. However, at the talks I learned that Ancestry has had a boom in their autosomal testing in the past months and they are also moving into the United Kingdom and Ireland, which just might help with my research. Since the Ancestry test is not yet available in Australia I took the opportunity to do their test while in Salt Lake and post it back directly. After all I didn’t really need that rather nice black coat in Macy’s which cost about the same amount of money – sometimes genealogy is all about sacrifices.

Here are some genetic genealogy blogs/web pages you might find useful to further your own research:
DNA eX-plained: Genetic Genealogy by Roberta Estes
The Genetic Genealogist: Blaine Bettinger
Your DNA Guide: Diahan Southard

I wonder how many of us have tested our DNA with one of the genetic genealogy companies. Have you?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Journeying Back to Your Ancestor's Time; My Person Journey

The process of journeying back to your ancestor's time has been the discussion in many videos lately, which brought me post this.

First I started at home.  I was wanting to know about the pictures I saw in my mother's picture box of men on horses that were obviously military, but I did not know who or where. I started by asking my mom about this. She said they were her father's, he served in the Spanish American War and her mother received a pension from that. She emphasized that he died when she was 2 months old, and so he did, which was why she didn't have any stories.
Picture owned by Fran Ellsworth 
My second step was looking for his military pension. I did not find it in the Spanish American War files.  I found their pension indexes mixed in with the Civil War indexes from the NARA T289. Pension applications for service in the US Army between 1861 and 1900, grouped according to the units in which the veterans served.   This discovery was on Fold3. I now knew that he was in Company B of the 38th Infantry Battalion.  I also had his muster in and muster out dates, as well as his death date. He enlisted September 11 1897 in the U.S. Army Volunteer Infantry and fought in the Philippine American War,
If you are wondering about your ancestor and the Spanish or Philippine Wars this site Spanish American War Vs Philippine American War is a great one to read.

On, I found him and his 2 brothers, Robert C Whitson, and Oscar Whitson on the 1900 US Federal Census at Battalion at Batangas, Philippine Islands, Military and Naval Forces in the same battalion., Online image, Year: 1900; Census Place: Batangas, Philippine Islands, Military and Naval Forces; Roll: 1841; Enumeration District: 0191; FHL microfilm: 1241841
My next move was to go to my favorite newspaper sites, , and Chronicling America to search the newspapers of that time to see what was being said.  Sad to say, the press was very negative about this war and coverage wasn't great, but the political cartoons were rampant. clipping Decatur Daily Republican
(Decatur, Illinois)
25 Apr 1898, Mon • Page 1

Chronicling America, The Houston daily post., May 31, 1902, MAILABLE EDITION
The worse article to read was about a battalion being charged with atrocities. I breathed a sigh of relief that my grandfather was not in that battalion.  His service summary card said service Honest and Faithful.  A description I would not mind to have. Finally I found an article that told of the end of the volunteer army. It described when they would come home, and the transports that would be involved.

I also used Google search where I also found the book Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Volume 1, Part 3 US Gov. 1901.  In there was the chart that gave the exact ship ‘Thyna’ that his battalion came home on, the date in port and the date they were discharged on which matched his pension card.   I then searched for the names of the transports which gave me the dates and places that they arrived in.
Someone (there wasn't a name) had transcribed two Oregonian Daily articles that included the arrival of the ship.

Two Big Transports Will Return to Portland From Manila.
“The United States transports Thyra and  Kintuck will both return to Portland
from Manila, and the former has already sailed for Portland with a company of
volunteers, which will be mustered out in San Francisco. The Thyra was turned over
to the Government in this city, and It is supposed that she Is coming back to Port,
land to be returned to her owners. Otherwise, she would probably go direct to
San Francisco with the troops. Just why the troops should not be mustered out In
Portland is a matter which is not easily explained, except that the San Francisco
pull is heavier than that of Portland. The Kintuck will probably bring a few
soldiers when she returns. She had excellent luck with her outward cargo of
horses and mules from Portland, losing but four animals on the voyage.”

THE SUNDAY OREGONIAN, PORTLAND, JUNE 30, 1901. ASTORIA:  June 29. Arrived at 8:50 A.M. and left up at 12:30 P. M.
 Norwegian steamer Thyra, from Manila. From San Francisco.
“The Norwegian steamship Thyra, which has been In the Government transport
service for several months, arrived at Astoria yesterday morning, and after a
short stay at quarantine, proceeded up the river. She brings 237 passengers,
nearly all, of them returning volunteer Infantrymen. The officers on board were
Captain D. F. Allen, Captain Ross A. Nichols, First Lieutenant A. J. Brown,
Second Lieutenant A. C. Davis, First Lieutenant S. Friedman and Captain W.
G. Fleischhauer. The present trip of the Thyra will be her last
 in the Government service, and she will probably drift back
into the merchant service.”

From this, I was able to see they had a long hard trip aboard a steamer.  They had to wait another
month before they were discharged to go home.  It was amazing to see they were transported to the upper North West of the United States to be able to get back to their homes.  The newspaper article said they still had to wait for their last 5 days of pay because of not being mustered out until 5 days after the expiration of the time the congress had set for the volunteer army.
I hope they got it. These men did not get a ticker tape parade or a pat on the back.

I know from my great uncle Ray Whitson, and from what my mother said, that my grandfather volunteered because he wanted to serve his country. During WWI, he couldn’t volunteer to go serve as a soldier, so he went and volunteered to drive a taxi at Fort Sill, Oklahoma to help the soldiers.  He apparently kept hitting his knee on the door. When his knee hurt enough, he went in to the doctors and they discovered he had cancer in his knee.  His service days were over. According to his Pension Index card, it was the 19th of June 1920 that they deemed him to be sufficiently handicapped to receive his military pension.  My grandmother, continued to receive this pension, thankfully, as a widow, It was a blessing because they had lost everything because of medical bills and she still had 6 children at home.

I close saying that I am grateful my grandfather was a man who stood for his country and desired to serve to help other’s be free.  He was a good man.  I made a scrapbook page to depict his military journey, from where he lived when he volunteered to where he returned to the United States.
Created utilizing facts found about his journey in newspapers, military records, Historical records of the time. by Fran Ellsworth
This was my journey. I love books on History such as Spanish-American war and battles in the Philippines that were written in the time period you are searching. The Internet Archive is a great source for all countries and wars. I also use Newspapers, and Military Records that give descriptions. All countries have their own newspapers that give their perspective of a war.  I even found articles written by other countries used by American newspaper companies.   By the time I was through, I felt I had had a moment to see what it was like for him, I am sure not his exact feelings but at least what the forces were that he was dealing with. 

Monday, 16 February 2015


You read that right.  I said,


This month many family researchers are gathering in Salt Lake City for research and learning.

This month, many are snow bound.  They will spend many hours at the computer researching the bountiful data bases online, free and otherwise.

Over the winter, many will go to school or attend webinars having to do with their research and research skills.

Many are participating in "do overs" on their data bases.

And, I am telling you


Seriously, do you ever walk away?  (Yes, I know you are in an exceptionally deep research hole, shiny and new and WOW, that is one interesting little tidbit, what else can you find?  I get it, I was there last night!)

Do you ever stop to re-group?  Do you ever review something you found a few weeks/months ago?

Stepping away, even if just to go do the dishes and run a load of laundry (why is it those chores never ever stop or just go away?) will give you a chance to re-group and review.

Stepping away to go take a walk or a hike, or UGH, clean that snow from the walk and driveway, will give you some much needed exercise for the body and some much needed rest for your brain.

This winter, because of some boondocking (RVing with no hookups, self reliant camping) and rallies, I have been away from the computer for longer than I usually am.  I am quite surprised at how wonderful I feel when I come back to the computer.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that the more I have walked away, the more productive I have become when I return.

Imagine that.  More productive.  What a great thing.


Enjoy a sunset. 

When you come back, here's hoping you are refreshed and ready to crack that brick wall.

Good luck!


Saturday, 14 February 2015

What can your great-great-grandparents predict about you?

There’s been a lot of interest lately in a study looking at wealthy families in England, which shows that people with ‘posh’ surnames are just as likely to be well-off as their ancestors in 1850 were. Social mobility’s a myth, it suggests. You're more likely to inherit your great-great-grandparents' jobs than their height.

And you may think that’s not surprising. England’s just as divided by class now, you might say, as it was in the days of Downton Abbey – or Wolf Hall.

But wait a minute – there are similar results in the USA. And in Japan, India, South Korea, Chile, and (surprisingly) Sweden and even China.

So here's the question for genealogists and family historians: do the jobs your great-great-grandparents did predict what you do today?

And before anyone says: "What? I’m a web designer, my partner’s a radiologist, my sister works in TV and my brother’s an air traffic controller," let’s stop and think about what those jobs really mean.

No, Ug, you can't be a farmer. Our family's always been hunter-gatherers.
Why do people do the work they do? For money, of course, or because they love it (if they’re lucky), but also for status. That’s what people are really asking when they say: "And what do you do?" They mean: "What sort of person are you?" and "Are you like me?" And if the answer’s "I’m the CEO of a finance company and my husband’s a rat-catcher" there would be a few startled people wondering what people with such different status (and incomes) are doing together. Even in 2015.

I’ve taken a look back at my own great-great-grandparents. On my Welsh grandmother’s side there were farmers. John Lloyd and his wife Elizabeth Jones farmed, just as their parents had done (and, I’m willing to bet, their own great-great-grandparents did). So did Thomas Davies and Sarah, his wife. They had middle-sized farms and employed help, so they would’ve been comfortably off, neither poor nor rich.

My Welsh grandfather’s family isn’t so easy to track down. Griffith Owen, my great-grandfather, was a mariner and it’s possible that his wife Elizabeth’s father was involved in the same trade. But I haven’t been able to track them down any further, partly because pinning down a Griffith Owen from Anglesey has turned out to be tough – there were a lot of them, and the records aren’t consistent. Still, my research shows that his father was a probably a farmer, an agricultural labourer, a slate-splitter, a brewer, or worked for the railway.

Moyne, where Lucy and Thomas Delaney lived © Patricia Owen
On the Australian side, Thomas Delaney and Lucy Simpson were farmers, again neither poor nor rich. Thomas’s father, Nicholas Delaney, my first convict, settled down as a farmer after being a roadbuilder. Lucy’s parents, both convicts, were a tailor and a farm servant.

Robert Sandon Wilson worked in the New South Wales goldfields but disappeared a few years after marrying my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Emma Henley (or Dicks). A photo of Sarah and their children shows them as respectably dressed, but I don’t know what she did for money after Robert vanished.

On my Aussie grandmother’s side, James Thomas Richards, a convict, became a top waterman and I’ve no evidence of his wife Rebecca Harrington working. John Winter, a rail labourer, was poor enough to take an ‘assisted passage’ to Australia – in other words, his fare was paid by a sponsor – and took up his father’s trade of quarryman. I haven’t found out what his wife, Ann Graham, another assisted immigrant and a blind pauper’s daughter, did to bring in money.

It’s a mixture of poor and comfortably-off people, all hard-working. Mostly they carried on doing what their parents had done. For some, going to Australia meant they had better lives, but they didn’t all end up with higher status – to be a convict, even a well-off one, left you with a ‘stain’ in respectable society. It was my grandparents who broke away from the family trades and moved to white-collar jobs in cities, though my Lloyd grandmother kept the family farm going. All still working hard.

And that’s what I do today – tapping away at my keyboard in a city. Job status-wise, what does that make me? Not high, not low, somewhere in the middle, like most people living in the UK. Despite our obsession with class – and the fact that the income gap is widening.

I’d love to know what you think about this five-generation theory, and if your great-great-grandparents’ jobs have any relation to you today.

Are you working in the same sort of trade or craft? Or have you broken away?

Friday, 13 February 2015

Welcome to genetic genealogy

Hello world!  My name is Shannon Combs-Bennett and I am excited to bring to you the world of genetic genealogy.  In this, my first post, I wanted to give you an idea of what my series will be about.  These posts will be every other month on the 12th.  Since that is not a lot I will make the most of my time with you.

First off, I started my adult life as a scientist.  While there are many reasons why I am not in the lab anymore, I still act, talk, and think like a scientist at times.  Particularly when it comes to genetic genealogy.  I feel strongly that to truly get the most out of the results you receive it is important that you at least understand the basics of genetics. Yes, just the basics, I promise. Many people have a strong feeling that they don’t need to know all the science stuff but let me tell you right now, you will thank me later for my definitions and explanations in the months to come.

Through this blog, I will bring you updates, tips, interesting reads, plus basic genetic explanations to make sure you are up to date on all you need to know in the world of genetic genealogy.  There is a lot out there in this field and it with an every other month post they will be chocked full of information.  Of course, that may mean you could have questions for me about all sorts of things.  I encourage you to leave me comments here on the blog or to email me directly and I will try and answer everyone’s questions in upcoming posts. 

Updates in the field:
Have you seen the genetic genealogy standards which were published 10 January 2015?  These are a great guide to anyone interested in getting more involved (professionally or personally) in this field.  Make sure you check them out!

Tip of the month:
My first tip to anyone who is interested in learning more about genetic genealogy (even if you think you are an old pro at it) to go read the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) website and wiki.  This is the go to website and organization for anyone who wants to keep up to date in the field.  You can join their mailing lists too which is very, very worth the time to read. 

Must Read:
Judy Russell, the legal genealogist, wrote a blog post on 8 February that really struck a chord with me.  One of the most common statements made to me is that they will never test because they don’t the government or the police to have access to their DNA. It just amazes me that this can be an issue.  Periodically you will see posts which talk about all the reasons why the DNA used for genealogy is of no use to the government or the insurance companies.

In fact, that is why in the US the GINA act was created.  If you have not heard of GINA I suggest you take the time to go and read about it.  In a nutshell, it states that any DNA given cannot be used against a person by insurance companies or employers.  You cannot be discriminated against with higher premiums or be fired because you have the predisposition to a genetic disease. 

However, as Judy points out in her post, if the police want your DNA they will get it.  They will collect it in any way they can and they will test it at their own facility.  Notice I said they will collect it?  Well that is because the testing for genealogy and the testing for crimes do not do the same thing.  It makes no sense for a police department to traipse down to a genetic genealogy testing company and get your samples. Maybe this article will give you some credibility with those family members you are trying to get to test.

I hope you enjoyed this first post and look forward to learning more about DNA and genealogy in the coming months. This is going to be a lot of fun!

Salt Lake City The Rootstech 2015/ FGS Conference First Impressions

I arrived in Salt Lake City on 8th February to a beautiful sunny warm day which was totally out of keeping for this part of the world in early February.
I had spent the previous week with my cousins near Memphis where we had days of warm sunshine and sub zero overnight temperatures, but no rain or snow. On the 7th February we were sitting outside in the garden and cooking on the barbecue. What crazy weather this year and I could have left some of the cold weather gear at home.
Enough of the British preoccupation with the weather this is a genealogy blog and I want to share my first impressions of this major US conference.
I have taken some photographs and I have included one or two that others have shared.
This is the place to connect with others but I am surprised at how many faces I recognised.
On the opening day of FGS I attended sessions from Lisa Louise Cooke, Thomas MacEntee, Judy G Russell and Cyndi Ingle as well as the Opening session.
Here is a link to a video blog that Jill Ball has on her You Tube channel.

On the first day of Rootstech 2015 apart from the Keynote speakers I went to a talk by Thomas W Jones the author of Mastering Genealogical Proof which we studied with DearMYRTLE last year. Then after a lunch in the Expo Hall where I caught up with the WikiTree team I went to a talk by Rosalind McCutcheon Irish Records - Beyond the Obvious and then Thomas MacEntee was Pinning Your Family History.

Here is a slideshow of some of the photographs I have taken or have been shared with me. I am sure I will have many more by the time I go home on Sunday.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction - Part E

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction
Part E
"Dr. Bill" Smith

This series of posts began in October 2014 (See Part A) sharing the idea that we each should consider preserving the family stories we find as we do our family history and genealogy research, whether for ourselves, or for others, by using fiction as a tool to do that.

Then, in Part B, I shared my love of family saga literature and hopefully I got you to thinking about how your own stories could possibly be effectively told this way, using some of my own fiction stories as examples, and recommending some to you, for your review.

In December (See Part C), we looked at using a theme as the basis for good fiction stories. Since this was December, we discussed the “coming home for Christmas” theme. That was one of the stories at the heart of my “Christmas at the Homeplace” novel last year, and we examined ways to make that theme work in the novel.

[I get no commission from this link, it is just a direct link for your convenience]

In Part D, in January, I shared a couple of specific fiction writing techniques, with examples, that allow you to adapt your fine stories to fiction without getting bogged down in too much actual history details. You want historical detail, but too much may very well be too much for a good story.

Today, in Part E, we want to share another totally different perspective that you might consider for turning the stories you have found in your family history research into meaningful, and enjoyable, fiction stories to share. This can be especially useful where there are significant gaps in the historical facts you have available upon which to base the stories.

As a point of reference, I’ve use this approach, to-date, to share 64 stories in my series, “Weston Wagons West.” I created the fictional Weston family beginning in the 1600s with three brothers moving from England to America, one to Virginia, one to Maryland, and one to Massachusetts. Not only do I tell their stories (based on related research of the context of the place and times), but I portray them as neighbors and friends of my actual ancestors and relatives in those times and places. I am very careful to only tell stories within the historical facts, events, and places, based on research. This framework is then “filled-in” with fictional elements. I use every historical fact of which I am aware, and weave my stories around those facts.

Let’s use one more recent, and one very early, example to illustrate how this can be done. The most recent story I published, tells of my great-grandfather, James P. Preston, as a 17-year-old, making his way to catch a wagon train to California as part of the Gold Rush, in 1852. That part is factual. I even have identified a news article of his departure from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the spring, as well as one documenting his arrival in Sacramento, California in the fall.

The story I told in this particular episode was the journey across southern Iowa, from Illinois, of James,  J.P., along with his friend, Martie Weston, earlier in the spring. The details of this journey (none of which were available from my research on him - just that he did it) were derived first from a diary of a person who actually made the trip a year or so later. I then looked up the history of each of the towns and activities mentioned in the diary, on Wikipedia, and other sources, to fill in interesting events and activities that they would have encountered in 1852. One river crossing would have been made only a few months after a tornado had ravaged the town and the ferry. The ferry they used (presumably) was one of the first things re-constructed after the tornado, of course.

The prior episode in the series of stories (about J.P. and Martie) is linked at the end of this story.

A very early story began in the spring of 1640, when 24-year-old James Weston arrive in Maryland from England. My wife and I actually visited St. Mary’s City, that has been reconstructed there. We loved interacting with the re-enactors, each of whom stayed in character of the time and place. It was the only city port in the state at that time, just a few years after the first European arrivals. This and the following episodes set up stories that involve my earliest Brightwell and Kinnick family ancestors. Because the actual recorded facts are so few and far between (though clear and detailed), creating a fictional family for continuity of story was essential. Within that family story, then, the interactions of my actual ancestors became relatively easy to weave in and through their story. This is the specific technique I used in all 64 episodes, to date. 

Reconstructed ship similar to Ark II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Each of the members of the Weston families, of course, are created so as to have persons who “show up” in the places and times my different ancestor families actually appeared in history. I used Weston occupations as farriers, blacksmiths, and wagon-builders so that they would fit in appropriately where ever their travels took them. There are still many stories to tell in this series, of course. I try to share sets of stories, in some sequence. However, the families are also set up so that a new branch can be added at any time, to pick up a new storyline, as they come available, and I choose to write them. One day, I hope to add my wife’s ancestors - who are really even more interesting than mine!

I hope you will read some of the stories and give me your reactions.

See you next month! I love to read comments, so please leave one or more, including questions. 

Dr. Bill


"Dr. Bill" (Wm. L.) Smith can be found regularly at his genealogy blog, "Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories" <> or his family saga blog, "The Homeplace Saga," <>. He is an original contributor, as The Heritage Tourist, to the "In-Depth Genealogy" blog with a monthly column in the "Going In-Depth" digi-mag. He also writes a monthly post for the Worldwide Genealogy Blog.