30 March 2012

Getting to Know Google

While the days of microfiche and dusty libraries aren't gone yet, technology is steadily improving to the point that one day we won't need to travel so far to find our roots. The majority of what we want to find isn't online; let me be clear about that. I've heard people figure it at about 5% of all the documents available are online. There are companies that are trying to digitise and transcribe as many records as they can. Ancestry has the World Archives Project and FamilySearch has Index projects that include the 1940 census. Until all the world's records are digitised, how do we know what's available online? And where do we find the documents that aren't? As I have already blogged, sometimes we just need to look to Google first. And interestingly, Google has a lot of tools that can make the life of a genealogist easier.

The most obvious is the search tool. Seriously, who doesn't know to "Google it"? Well actually, for many people it comes counter-intuitive to start with a Google search. I can't tell you the number of times I've "Googled it" for someone and found just what they were looking for on the first page. To others, the sheer volume of results can be daunting, especially for a common name. Well, take those hints from Crista about searching like a pro and use them here! Know what you are looking for and be specific. Use search operators like AND, OR, or - (Note and/or have to be in all caps to count or they'll be ignored). Lifehack did an article about searching Google like a pro, which I have bookmarked for easy reference. And did you know you could search Google Images by image now? That's right! There's a little camera on the right of the search bar. If you click on that, Google Images will let you add a photo to search. Now, it's still very new, so when you put in a black and white photo of a person, you get black and white photos of people new and old. Add some words "John So-n-so, 1864, Texas", and it'll help narrow your search.

But that's just the tip of our Google iceberg! Add to the search the toolbar download to have the search tool always ready. There are also a number of "buttons" you can add to help you. My favorite is the Translate tool. It can be very helpful when you are Googling where/how to find foreign records and the website is not in English. There's a Spell Checker to help when writing on a website (like Blogger). It's capable of spell check in a few languages, so if you know Spanish, but your spelling isn't always the best, Google will help! The "Highlight All" button will highlight the words from your search that are found on the page, making it easier for you to scan the page and decide if it's pertinent. You can add a share button so you can email, Facebook, Google+, blog, etc. your find to anyone you wish. Google has enhanced search features to find related content, auto fill forms and search bars with most likely information, and more. Please note: those features do take/share some of your information, so be sure to check all the settings to the level you want before proceeding! Also, there are third-party options that aren't Google, so check reliability of the company providing them.

There are three tools outside of searching that I use quite a bit. My favorite of course is Google Translate. I can input a bit of text from a document and Google will figure out what the language is and translate it for me. I used this tool to translate some postcards I got at an antique store that were from Germany 1912. Not life-changing information, but it was fun to read nonetheless. You can make special characters like å by using your computer's special characters map (You can find that in Accessories usually). It even suggested spelling changes if a letter was missed/unclear. Google Calendar is a great tool that can be accessed from a computer or smartphone. I share my calendar with family so they can see what I'm doing and when. This way, when they want to hang out with me, all they have to do is check the calendar. They can even add an event to a free moment if they want to reserve that time. If I'm headed to a library for the day, I've had relatives email me a list of items they need, or names of relatives that may be found in archives. Google Docs is a great place to store copies of pdf files, documents, and family group sheets. In fact, after clicking on "create" and choosing "from template", I was able to search "census" and found this 1790 census extraction form. Ancestry has a printable option, but here was one I could just type into. If I needed to do so, I could create and share a template for such a thing. And I know I've seen people asking for it, so there ya go.

In my blog post about genealogy and television, I mentioned YouTube. There are several channels devoted to genealogy by your favorite companies, but also by devoted fans and hobbyists. Judicious use of YouTube can also bring you finds like the 1940 census introduction. And the Google Books search was how I found an ebook of the Kemper line printed in 1899. It traced a great many Kempers back to our earliest ancestor, John Kemper of Virginia in 1714. There was a brief historical sketch of the earliest church record they found in Germany, but it was the names that were the most helpful. Using that book (with actual verified documents like birth records, marriage licenses and censuses) helped me connect to other Ancestry members who had information on their direct line to that tree as well. I only wish I could find more books about the other lines I'm working on! Picasa is Google's photo sharing option, and can be useful for keeping a centralised location for your digital photos. I use Flickr, but really it's personal preference, just like social networking. I'm sure a few of us use Facebook over Google+ just because our family and friends are more active on Facebook.

Speaking of social networking, Google+ is a clean version of what Facebook was pre-Timeline. Quite a few genealogy sites like Ancestry and Olive Tree have a presence on Google+, but it's underutilised......... so get over there now and give them a reason to patronise it! Google+ allows you to share photos, and tag people in them. Once they're tagged, Google can use their burgeoning face recognition options to find more photos of that person........ which sounds cool. Again, if you are privacy wary, this won't be something you want. Another great product from Google is Blogger. I won't link that one as you currently find yourself on Blogger reading this wonderful (and in my humble opinion, brilliant) article. You can create a blog to help others or just use as a journal of your own trials and tribulations. Share it with the world, or a select few. Blogger has it's own set of tools to make a useful landing zone for your information, be it in posts, photo or video. If you want something more of a website with the option for wikis and the like, Google Sites is your go-to area. (I actually have a draft blog about language study I'm thinking of transferring to a site instead. I think that'll be an easier format for what I really want to do.) Google Groups allows you to join or create a group on any topic you wish, from surnames to general genealogy. And Google Reader allows you to subscribe to a blog or site and get them in a simple news feed rather than hunt each one down every time you want to read them.

There are also a few I consider more "just for fun" than day-to-day useful. Panoramio is Google Maps meets Picasa. Search a location and see photographs of that location. Some old, some new, all beautiful. Really a great idea if you're planning a trip or want an idea of the environment your relatives lived in. Patent Search is useful if you had an inventor in the family and want to see their patent proposal (or if you want to invent something yourself and need to know if it's already in existence). Google Scholar will search out scholarly papers, legal opinions and journals and articles. A worthwhile option for someone wanting an opinion based on deep study; for example, how "experts" feel about archive handling and care. It's quite dry reading, as it's not prepared for common consumption, but the information can be invaluable to a serious mind.

We're always looking for ways to organise our research so that we aren't lost in it (or signed up for the show "Hoarders" by less than understanding relatives). There are so many great options in Google that you really should add it to your toolkit. Because I hear complaints about it all the time, it bears repeating that ONCE IT'S ON THE INTERNET, IT'S THERE TO STAY. Don't share what you are uncomfortable sharing. Read all privacy policies before using a product. Google spells it out very neatly in their new policies, so take the time to familiarise yourself with your options for protecting your rights. In the end, use it as much or as little as you are comfortable, but use it.

-See you on the interwebs!

22 March 2012

How to Break Down, Scale, and Work Around Your Brick Wall

We all come to a point where we feel we have reached the end of our research on a branch of our tree. Plugging along, we happily add new members (always with documentation, right?) and keep going back, back, back..........BAM! Brick wall. An almost insurmountable conundrum. It's like the relative in question dropped out of the sky. Confused and hurt, we decide there's no getting around it.......... until there is.

If you've never watched "True Blood", there's a great quote in the first season that I keep in mind whenever doing a search. One character named Terry is talking about setting up a party like a debutant coming out and another character says he didn't realise Terry came from an "old family". Terry's response? "Everyone comes from an old family. Some just kept better records." And ain't that the truth? Even if you are one of the lucky few that find an unbroken documented line back to a verifiable family from antiquity, you will eventually reach a stopping point. For most of us plebeians, that's in the 1800's. Millions have come and gone without doing anything of historical importance, so there are more unknown than known relatives. There have been wars and natural disasters that have destroyed documentation, leaving us with a hole that only a leap of faith can bridge. Ancestors were human too, and as humans they made mistakes, told lies and stretched the truth....... a few fudged facts, and there's a line erased. How do we know we've truly reached the end and won't get around it? What can we do to break through this wall? In the word's of the great Taoist, Winnie the Pooh: "Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it".

My Brick Wall
When I started my family tree, I had one branch I was already resigned to never knowing. My great grandmother Brown was from Scotland. There was a story in the family that she was actually Jewish and from Germany or Poland or "something". She insisted she was Scottish and that was that. For about ten years, I lost track of my mother's side of the family. When I was able to reconnect, my great grandmother was gone and so was possibly the best link to the truth. I asked my mother, who insisted we were Jewish. She thought we were from Czechoslovakia and said her grandfather had changed his name, so it wasn't whatever it was before. My grandmother told me that her mother's maiden name had been Brown in Scotland, so I was essentially looking for a marriage contract between a Charles Brown and a Margaret Brown..... great. And if great great grandpa was going under an assumed name, how was I supposed to find the real name???? Occasionally, a relative would give me a new bit of information that I'd happily plug into my tree and search with no positive results. So I did like many a newbie, and I saw this as a wall far and wide that I'd never climb and forgot about it for the most part. Until a friend, Loretta, posted her Friday tip on her blog and a perfect stranger on Ancestry's Facebook page asked a question about one of Crista Cowan's tips for "researching like a pro". I resolved once again to chip away at the brick wall.

Back to the Family
A year ago, my aunt was in contact with a cousin in Scotland. The relative knew of a brother named Joseph, one Frank and a sister Mary. Mary died in Scotland at the age of 33, though birth and death dates weren't known. She was also able to get great grandma's original maiden name of Levingskas. It seems that the name change that great grandpa did was to change Levingskas to Lavinski..... really? That was it? That was the big name change that was going to stop me dead in my tracks? Actually, for a while it did, as I still couldn't find anything on a Margaret Lavinski. Then another aunt who had been doing some research in the family told me Margaret came to the states in 1927 or so.... back to the searches. No immigration records for Margaret Lavinski (she marries great grandpa Brown in the 1930's). The Scottish cousin also mentioned that some of the later family changed the name to Livingstone. That lead to bupkis. A few months ago, I finally get my grandmother to give me some pictures. In one is great grandma at 16 with the name Margaret Brown. Dang, back to that again. So when did great grandpa and family go by Brown? According to grandma "as soon as they moved to Scotland". According to my research "who the hell knows?"

Johnny, Margaret, Frank
There were a few rays of sunshine in our conversation, however. The picture of great grandma was with her friend and she had written on the back their names and her age with the date. She was 16 in 1929, living in Scotland. So she was born about 1907. Besides the picture of great grandma "Brown" and her friend, I was also given a photo of great grandma and two of her siblings with their names and ages on the back. That's right, now I had "This is me, Gramma Brown with my brothers taken in Scotland. Johnny aged 13, me 11, Frank 9." So Johnny was born in 1905, Frank 1909. New information, new relatives! Did they come to the States too? Grandma thought yes. I did a few searches and found some possible records that I saved to my shoebox (an excellent feature if used correctly), but without more information, I couldn't be sure these were my relatives. Once again, I was stuck.

Working Around the Wall with Siblings
Now, after reading Loretta's blog, I decided to put Margaret aside and find out about her brothers. Using Crista's advice, I wanted to find out if and when they came to the states. Off to Ancestry I went, searching out Frank or John(ny) Levingskas/ Lavinski. What I found was a naturalisation index for a Frank Joseph Lavinski. He had a birth date of August 22, 1908. He was born in Scotland. He lived in Chicago. Hmmm, grandma was born in Chicago. This might be a match, so it's off to find more proof!

But what is the next step? Well, stick with Frank and try to find a passenger list or census, right? I want to know when this Frank came to America. About five hints down is a Frank Lavinski in a 1930 census living as a boarder in Chicago..... could it be? According to his naturalisation, Frank didn't change his name to Lavin until 1937, so we have a possibility.

1930 U.S. Census
So now, Frank (age 21) is living as a boarder to a Walter Mitkus who is a widower with two children Martha (age 16) and Francis (age 14). Walter's sister-in-law Margaret Plunkus (age 23) and his niece Margaret Jr. (age 1 1/2) are also living with him. Walter is from Lithuania. Margaret and Frank are from Scotland. Could this be my great grandma with her brother and brother-in-law? If so, why is Frank a "boarder"? And why is she named Plunkus? Maybe I have it wrong. So I once again start a search for Frank, this time looking for a passenger list. I find a Frank Lavinski on a New York arrival log. And now I'm going to give you an invaluable piece of advice that was passed down to me from another researcher on Ancestry: CHECK THE PAGE BEFORE AND AFTER YOUR RECORD. On the first page, I found his name and birth year, port of departure and nationality. He was a Lithuanian who sailed from England. I checked the pages before and after and found a second page listing contact information. His contact for his departure was his father John Lavinski living in Mossend, Scotland. He was going to visit his brother-in-law WALTER MITKUS of Chicago!  I now felt I was on the right family..... maybe. It could still be a whole different group of Lavinskis. My aunt said great great grandpa was Jonas Levingskas/Lavinski, so could he have changed his first name to John?.... I wonder what happened to Walter's wife. Off to find Walter in the 1920 Census!

Scaling the Wall with Corroborating Documents
Report of death of a U.S. citizen abroad
I find Walter in 1920, Chicago with his children Martha (6) and Francis (4). I also see a wife Mary (23). Mary is was born in Lithuania. Well, the family could have moved after her birth. So how did Mary get from Lithuania to the States and then die in Scotland? After a search of Mary Mitkus in Scotland, I found this record for a death of a United States citizen abroad.

Seems Mary Mitkus died in 1929, so she'd have been 33. That seemed to fit with what my aunt had told me. The form states that her effects were in the hands of her father John Levinskas of Mossend, Scotland. At the same address as the contact for Frank's passenger list. Her daughters Martha and Francis were temporarily with their grandfather at Mossend. Her husband, Walter Mitkus was in Chicago with her sister Margaret PRUNKES. So the name on the 1930 census may be wrong (or this one is), but everything was starting to line up that I had the right documents about these people. But what about this Plunkus/Prunkes surname?

As it turns out, my great grandmother was married before she met my great grandfather. Grandma didn't know the name of her husband, but now I did. I confirmed with grandma that her oldest sister was in fact from this first marriage. Now to refine my search for a Margaret Prunkes/Plunkus. The 1930 census shows that Margaret Jr. was born in Illinois and her father was from New York. A search of Ancestry and Family Search don't come up with anything quick. I try a few spelling changes, try to search the husband's surname in New York only. I try to find a birth notice for Margaret Jr. in Chicago. Nothing is really fitting together. This may take a little time, but I've made more headway in a week than I have in a year.

Off to Break My Wall, BRB
I'm not giving up. I've got new avenues to explore and it could all be at my fingertips with a few website searches. Or I could have to get in touch with local parishes and authorities in Scotland to find out more about the Levingskas' immigration to Scotland from Lithuania. Knowing Mary was born in Lithuania and Margaret Scotland narrows down the travel time. I still have to find something about Johnny too. And there was a brother that stayed behind in Scotland named Joseph; but then again Frank's middle name is Joseph (of course, it's not uncommon for a family to reuse a name even in the same generation). I did a search for their father John/Jonas Levingskas/Lavinski (narrowed the search to just Scottish records) and found a WWI British Army Medals Index for Joseph Levingskas. I clicked on the photo and got:

Dear Researcher, F You. Love, Britain
  As disheartening as the lack of information first seemed, there was hope. I checked Ancestry's description of the index, which lead to a Google search for the Medal Rolls, which lead me to the National Archives. It's £2 to get a copy of the record (about $3.17), but it is available. I'm not sure I want it just now as I don't have proof that this is my relation (and sadly, I don't have a budget for records this month). So I also did the free surname research on Scotland's People just to see if there were records for Levingskas. Turns out, quite a few. I can't view them without paying (per view), so this will also be on the back burner until the budget allows. But can you feel how close we are? I am going to continue other avenues including hitting the message boards and other websites, but I'm also going to set aside some money to get at these records. I'm no longer blocked. I have many avenues to investigate. New names and dates to track down. New questions that could lead right back to the beginning of my search. Like, who was Margaret's first husband? What happened to Walter and his daughters? Where's Frank after 1930? (one more name waiting for the 1940 census!) Did John/Jonas ever come to the States? Mary has an immigration of 1909 according to the 1920 census; that's pretty young. What happened there, and who did she come with, if anyone?

One thing to remember: Having more questions than answers doesn't mean you have a brick wall. It may mean you have to dig deeper. Or check the branches to better get at the root. Or ask the right questions. You may have to put it to the side until you can view it with fresh eyes. You may have to ask someone else to look at it to see if they ask questions you haven't thought about yet. Unless there's a document that says "fell from the Heavens", you may be just around the corner from your breakthrough. Keep an open mind and save records that are possible until they are impossible. The more collateral proof you have, the better your chance of finding the real facts.

Ponder, Ponder, Ponder

16 March 2012

Does the Mona Lisa Smile?

There has been a great deal of research done on the dwindling ability of our young to understand facial expressions. When you play with an infant, they become more engaged and animated the more your face alters its expression. They learn how to tell if you are happy or sad or angry because you make those faces. The problem is, with our ever growing computer culture, we are getting less expressive. As a consequence, we are also losing our ability to differentiate the expressions we do receive. The less we interact face to face, the less we understand the myriad of clues our face provides. I'm sure you've had a conversation with a younger person and found them unable to understand your emotional state (either accusing you of yelling when you aren't or not understanding how upset you really are) or found a blank face staring at you insisting that they are devastated. Maybe you are like me and wonder why movies today are full of emotionless mannequins with no ability to emote what their lines seem to be suggesting.

Now why in the world is this relevant to your genealogical research? Well, have you ever run across an unanswerable question only because you cannot justify a relative's actions? You find a relative in an orphanage despite his father living in the same town. Someone in your family owned, sold, or was a slave. They seemed to pick up stakes and move for no reason beyond it was a Tuesday. Sometimes, you know why they did what they did; or at least you think you do. What you are really wondering about is how it must've felt. You are looking for an emotional "why". The problem is, you are looking at a 19th century life with 21st century eyes. You are the stone faced teen unable to read what's clearly written on your ancestor's countenance.

So you end up with a brick wall. Not so much out of lack of information, but a lack of understanding. You stare blankly at a document telling you where your ancestor lived, died or worked and it makes no sense. What do you do? Well, don't take this the wrong way, but you READ. This can be as simple as looking on Wikipedia for a historical sketch of the time and/or place your ancestor lived in. It can be an in depth look at the history of the founding of a town or mass exodus of a people. Or it can be my favorite kind of reading: classic works of fiction for fun. If you truly want to know how your family felt and thought, pick up an author from their time and country and read. Historical works are fine and good, but are often written in hindsight and always from the winning side; so keep that in mind. And a fictional story from a contemporary writer is usually the easiest way to tap into the communal attitudes of the time. One of my favorite authors, Dickens, has a myriad of fictional works that can put the reader smack dab into the middle of English life in the 19th century. Bringing to light the foul treatment of children and poor families, his works tug at our hearts and open a window into the world in which he (and many ancestors) lived. To read Dickens is to understand the social order and philosophy of his world. Want to know how it felt to be a slave? Read the accounts of freed slaves like Frederick Douglass. What was the attitude of whites during slavery? Read a white author born and raised in the time of slavery, especially if they have black characters in their narratives (ever read Crusoe?). Curious as to the treatment of women? There are several women authors throughout history who delve into issues important to them in both fiction and nonfiction. It doesn't take much perusal of Jane Austin to know how bored she must've been with her life. Suffragette pamphlets, while biased, can make for a fun read and really enlighten you to the discord felt by women (especially after WWI when many had tasted work outside of the home for the first time). Read a medical journal on women's health and find yourself shocked (and a little amused) at what the "leading minds" thought caused women to be sick (hint: it was usually because of a faulty uterus). Moreover, fostering a love of literature will enrich your life and provide you with a broader cultural awareness. And who doesn't want that?

In the research on facial recognition, scientists found that the more expressions a person was exposed to, the better their ability to differentiate them. The same can be said for a well-read person. The more time periods you choose to read from/about, the more you choose differing ideals and philosophies, the greater your chance on picking up the subtle clues in your family's past. By exercising your literacy, you also exercise your cognitive abilities. Exposure to a vast array of ideas only helps you to hone your own reasoning skills to a finer edge. Everyone should read more books!

Now, I have no problem helping people with their brick walls or understanding their ancestors. "Ask and you shall receive" has always been a mantra of mine. But I think people have forgotten, or never knew, how to research. I have gone to actual courthouses and societies to do research, but 90% of what I do to help others is online. When I am asked a question on Ancestry's Facebook page, I'm going to Google anything I don't readily know. Most of the questions I answer for others are things they could find within 20 minutes of a simple Internet search. Sometimes it takes a special knowledge of the time or place in question, but not always. When you run into a question, your first stop should be a Google search. The answer may be readily available to you with nothing but a few keystrokes. Can't find it or still confused? Now ask for help. But ask correctly. When you ask another to help in your research, tell them what you know right now (names, dates, locations), where you've already looked and what specifically you want to know. I can't give that bit of advice enough. Asking a generally vague question will get back vague answers if any answer at all. And always remember that how we feel about a situation isn't how our ancestors felt. They may have been good people in a bad situation.... but they could've also been bad people making their own situation worse.

Ours is not to judge, but to learn.

09 March 2012

Genealogy, TV, and You

First, let me say that I hate reality television for the most part. I really could care less what drama is going on in the lives of a celebrity or someone looking for love by whoring it up with a large pool of potential mates that they never get to know. I don't have the patience for game shows that are so contrived that half the program is the "suspense" of waiting for the host to tell the contestant whether or not they answered a simple question correctly. There are two exceptions however. One is the "Amazing Race", which I love because I'd love to travel and they go to interesting places and learn fun new things. The other is "Who Do You Think You Are", where they take celebrities and follow their roots to find something that they didn't know about their family. It's genealogical crack. And it's on Prime Time! I have watched it and learned quite a bit. Sometimes how they get through to a new relative helps me get past my own brick wall. While on Ancestry's Facebook page, someone mentioned that there was a similar show on BYUTV for regular folk and that PBS also had a show coming out. I found myself wondering what other programs about genealogy were available. Turns out quite a few. Here are some that I found, what they're about and where you can buy/watch them.

Celebrity Themed
"Who Do You Think You Are?"- There is an American and British version of this show. This is actually a British import, having already eight seasons. The American version is currently airing their third on NBC, Fridays. The concept is simple: take a celebrity, research their history. The shows both have good tips and links on their websites and I recommend watching both if you can. Currently the American version has their first season for sale; the British has their seven completed seasons out. I was able to find both on Amazon, but they were also available on the respective websites of each version as well. They also sell companion books that go into more detail for each season. I haven't looked into those, but some people on Ancestry's facebook page have said it's well worth a look.

"Finding Your Roots" is a new one coming out middle of March 2012 on PBS. On this show, two celebrities from seemingly disparate backgrounds are connected together through their family histories. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the producer, writer and presenter and this is just his latest genealogy show. "African American Lives" and "African American Lives 2" were his first forays into televised genealogy with notable African Americans as the guests. Dealing with the specific trials of tracing African American heritage, it is a compelling story at times. The best part is the many resources linked on the respective websites. That alone is well worth the look. "Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr." was his series in 2010 for PBS. It also showed celebrities like the Who Do You Think You Are concept taking 12 celebrities on the journey in four episodes. These are already on DVD and you can find them in the PBS shop. There are also companion books for these programs.

"Family Historian" is a long running New York genealogical program that gave many tips on searching out family history. This website has the episodes for sale, but be warned, both the show and the website are decidedly low production. (There is music playing on the website that will drive you batty- mute your speakers)

"Where are shows about non-celebrities like me????"
Not a day goes by that someone isn't on a forum asking why celebrities get to have their genealogy researched for them while ordinary people have to work hard and do it themselves. Well, fear not! You too can find help while getting your 15 minutes of televised fame! "Generations Project on BYUTV" is one that deals with "everyday" people. BYUTV is a cable channel provided by Brigham Young University and their sponsor the LDS Church. There are currently 36 episodes on their website for viewing. Want to be on tv? Then this is your option! If you live in the United States or Canada, you can tell them your story and may be chosen to be on their program.

"Ancestors In the Attic" is a Canadian series in it's fourth season. This program also deals with "ordinary" folk. They take Canadians and travel through Canada and the world to solve their familial mysteries. I've not found a place to purchase the series, but they are viewable on their website. One other is "Genealogy Roadshow", which is an Irish program in the vein of Antiques Roadshow. They take ordinary people with rumors and stories and try to find the truth behind them. Actually very interesting.

Other viewing options
These don't deal with a specific history as much as give you ideas where/how to search. "Genealogy Quest Series" by the Larimer County Genealogical Society (Colorado) is an interesting series using experts to give tips and tricks on how to research. "Ancestors" by KBYU has two seasons (1997 & 2000) available for purchase. This one has a website full of links and tips, so even if you don't purchase the DVDs, you should check it out. "Genealogy Gems TV" has a website, a facebook page, iTunes podcast and a Youtube channel all dedicated to teaching you new things about genealogy. I like this one because it's very active and truly helpful. Ancestry also has it's own Youtube channel for short presentations from their resident genealogy experts on how to use the site as well as get around brick walls. In fact, there are quite a few channels and individual episodes available on Youtube if you just search "genealogy".

Many of the programs' sites have online viewing options. Remember, however, that international copyright laws may prohibit your country from viewing them online. Some I could even find a link to buy the DVD collection. I looked at Hulu.com by simply searching "genealogy" and came up with many clips and episodes from several different shows including History Detectives and Who Do You Think You Are. So if you have the will, you can find some interesting programs that may give you a new avenue for your own search.

And if you simply must watch Reality TV, isn't it better to have an option that is fun and informative?

02 March 2012

"I'm Related to Constantine!" and Other Things Not to Be Said Lightly

I doubt there is a human alive who does not have a deep-seated need to feel important. If we cannot do something special in our own life, we like to think that someone in our line has been of value to the world. While many of us rejoice in knowing any and all of our family history, to some others, their history will never be complete without a connection or two of a royal, native, or celebrity to illuminate their branches. They will accept half-truths and ignore contradictions to get it, too. And while you may legitimately have a claim, there are certain things that should never be said. Or at least have personal research and documentation in hand to back it up!

Coats of Arms
 "Here's my family Coat of Arms." "My surname is directly descended from _ and it means _"
Thanks to this website, I made my own coat of arms, motto and all!

Interestingly, this seemingly harmless error is also a very prolific one. If you are displaying a coat of arms for your surname, I have bad news for you. Traditionally in the U.K., Ireland and most of western Europe, the coat of arms is only to be passed on to direct-line male descendants of the original person to whom they were presented. They are not, I repeat not, simply attached to anyone with that surname. France and Germany have different rules. In the case of France, since becoming a republic, they don't bother with coats of arms. Germany used to give them away or have them bought. Many coats of arms are for cities and provinces, not families. Just because you have the surname that is attached to a coat of arms, doesn't mean you have the right to display it. If you believe you have the right to these arms, you should investigate the male line as far back as you can and contact the heraldic authority of the issuing country to confirm.

Surname histories and certificates fall into this same trap. These usually include a coat of arms in them, which should be a tip-off of their disingenuousness. The problem with surname histories lays primarily in the fact that surnames are inconsistent in morphology and origin. Since so many languages have similar bases (romance languages like Spanish, Italian, French and Romanian being formed from Latin for example), a name may be hard to pin down to one locality or meaning. There are hundreds of books and sites dedicated to telling you about your surname's illustrious history, however. So I decided to take my surnames and check them out. I used a few surname sources I found by Googling "surname history". Here's the list and what they told me about each of my surnames I tried. I used Gibson (which I presumed English), Householder (known German), Kemper (known German), Berrio (presumed Italian based on originator of the surname in our family), and Lavinsky which was the Americanised version our original surame Levingskas (known Lithuanian).
  • Ancestry.com- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gibb; Householder- Americanised Haushalter- Steward of an Estate; Kemper- German, peasant farmer; Berrio- Basque- new or variant of Barrios- Spanish/Arabic- slum; Lavinski had no meaning, but did show me a breakdown of census information of people with the surname (no Levingskas found)
  • Ancestor Search- Gibson- Scottish- Son of Gilbert or Gib; Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • Behind the Name- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gib; Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • Surname Database- Gibson- Scottish/English- Son of Gilbert (noted the Germanic origins of Gilbert just to confuse me I think); Householder and Haushalter- not found; Kemper- not found; Berrio- not found; Lavinski/Levingskas- not found
  • House of Names- Gibson- German/Scottish- Son of Gibb (and then goes to tell me how I can pay for a slew of information including famous Gibsons who ironically are on both the German and Scottish surname report); Householder- English, Haushalter- not found; Kemper- Dutch/English- comber of wool or flax; Berrio- Spanish- a barrier/gate/or fence; Lavinski- Polish- Lion (no Levingskas found)
Two interesting points. First, according to the Genealogy of the Kemper Family book by Willis Miller Kemper and Harry Linn Wright, Kemper is supposed to be German for warrior. Second, even though Ancestry didn't have a lot of information on each surname, they did show a breakdown of census information like what countries the surname immigrated from, what occupations they held in the states and average lifespan based on death records. So while I wouldn't take it's origin information as gospel (or even assume that all people with that surname are related), the demographic information was kind of neat.

"I've traced my family back to 1066 A.D. and William the Conqueror" "I'm directly descended from Constantine!" "I'm 9th cousins 4x's removed from Kate Middleton, OMG"

What exactly is the probability that the average American is related to royalty? Well, the fact is the odds of a royal connection becomes higher the farther back the connection. It also doesn't hurt if your family has been or is wealthy. I tried to find a reliable source on the probability and what research has been done, but what I mainly found was sites advertising books telling me that a lot of Americans are descended from royalty. I found claims for up to 15 million people being related to Kate and William and at least half of America is supposed to be related to Edward III or Charlemagne. What I found odd, was that many seemed to use Burke's Peerage as a source! Despite the fact that you can still find Burke's around online, the name has been sold from it's original owner who was infamous for fraudulent lineages, liquidated and sold off. Why anyone would trust them is beyond me.

There are ways to prove a royal connection, though. DNA is the most reliable, in as much as even if you were related to an illegitimate child, it'll come up in the markers. However, they aren't taking DNA from the dead royals to make the list, but living, provable descendants. As always, there's still a lot of guess work in this method. To be sure, the more people use this option, the better the database becomes. I am interested in the possibilities of DNA testing for genealogical research, but I've not yet taken a test. I've been told I should since the autosomal tests can break down ethnicity. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome tests are more reliable since those markers don't mutate as often, but only trace the mother to daughter, father to son connection. I have heard that every living person has a common ancestor of some 5,000 years ago; so in reality, we're all related and in that way, we are all related to royalty. So finding out you are related to Genghis Khan suddenly doesn't look so special, does it? And of course, there is always the pitfall of finding out you aren't who you think you are. I doubt any family is 100% sure of paternity from start to finish.

The common way to trace royalty is to find corroborating documents. The thing is, because of wars and natural disasters destroying documents, most people will only be able to trace their lineage to the 1800's. Even if you are lucky to go farther back due to the fact of an influential family line, you may only get to about the 1600's. It's so remote a possibility of going any farther back that most researchers will consider it impossible. So even if you are related to Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.), you may never find the documents to prove it. And don't take other people's word for it! Their research can be riddled with the erroneous data from vanity genealogies. Take their data and track down their sources, but never just accept it.

And saying you're a X cousin X times removed from a royal will mean almost nothing to many people. The average person won't understand what you mean and even more won't care. So you're the 10th cousin 5 times removed of some Nordic princess, how diluted is that bloodline? Does she even count as family then??? Will your family care or have a glazed look as they murmur, "oh cool."? Sadly, even after all that I've said, I know that many people will run out just to find that royal connection and prattle it back at anyone willing (or forced) to listen. Why are we so in love with royalty?

I blame Disney.

The "Lost" Indian Connection
First, let's start out with a phrase you should never use: "My grandmother was a Cherokee princess." Even if you have Native ancestors, this phrase will be dismissed out of hand by any serious researcher as misinformed and unsourced! The truth is there is no such thing as an Indian princess. It's a misnomer and the reasons why it came into use are vast. They also don't matter. Just don't say it.

I once wondered why it was always a Cherokee connection. Truth is, the Cherokee were once one of the most prolific tribes out there. The possibility for intermarriage was high, so if you do have a Native ancestor, the likelihood of it being a Cherokee is high. On the other hand, there were many tribes, so if you don't know for sure, it's best to keep your mouth shut until you do. There are specific hurdles to finding a Native link, and for a while it was in vogue to say you were somehow related to an Indian even if untrue; and just like royalty, you need to do your research. If you can't find the link, it may still be true, but you want to preface yourself with "the family rumor is that grandma was an Indian."

The Internet Genealogists for Quality have a list of quality guidelines that should be read and espoused by every researcher from day one of their journey. I recommend you view the link and take a moment to contemplate the quality of your own research.

And when you do go out in the world and tell people about your fantastic finds, be prepared for the skeptics. The false genealogies are so prolific, it is easier (and advised) to ignore any researcher who claims a distant link to a famous person or line. Too many times, a new researcher will see someone else's tree and find that connection and accept it without question. Always question. Even if it's your grandfather and he's been doing this for 30 years. He may have bought a surname book and based half his work on it. Or he may have made leaps of faith in his research, ignoring contradictions and omissions of facts. If you do want to share your success, the best way to do it is to have your facts right in the statement, "Thanks to a letter from the Duke of Windsor dated 1920, to his cousin, my grandmother, I was able to finally make that royal connection!" goes over a lot better than "My 50th grandfather was (insert famous name here)!"

As always, good luck and have fun!