20 January 2014

You've Got It So Wrong, You Don't Want To Be Right

There comes a time in every life when we have to admit we made a mistake. Some errors are "small". Transposition of numbers in a birth year (how did 1795 become 1975?), and we don't even break a sweat. What really keeps us up at night are those mistaken identities. You know the ones. Only a few generations back, you have the wrong person. And after that wrong person, you've gone back several generations more. You've added their "aunts" and "uncles" and second cousins........ to remove this person means an entire entourage needs to go too. To make matters worse, this wrong person is also your link to that famous or infamous relative you just love to show off. Ugh. When this happens, there's usually one of two camps you'll land in: The Pronials or the Blangers.


What makes you a Pronial? You'd rather rip out your own eyeballs than have to delete each person out of your tree one by one, so you ignore that mistake "for now". You know you have something to fix, but it's on that "unimportant" line. I mean, you've just found some really great info about your mother's father's 2nd great uncle! You will get back to fixing this. It's just going to be so much work. And work isn't fun. Genealogy is fun, dang it! When you're ready for the not fun part of genealogy, you'll clear this whole thing up. Promise.

How long can you put it off? Forever!!!!! As long as no one points it out. Then comes the defensive, "yeah I know, but I've not had time to fix it." You've had time. Just no motivation. Some people are so ensconced in this Pronial culture that they'd rather take their tree private so other people can't find the mistake rather than fix it! There's just so much to do........ anywhere else but on that line. You'll even *gasp* stop working on your tree and do housework instead! But every day you don't repair this mistake, the true relatives aren't found. Every week that passes is one less week you have to find them. Soon enough, you'll get confused and frustrated with your work. You'll avoid challenging yourself by fixing this error and it will fester. A dead limb on an otherwise vibrant tree.


The Blanger takes no responsibility for the mistake. They've used other people's research. They can't afford to get a copy of the original, so they had to make a best guess from the index. They may have even paid someone else to do it, so how dare you suggest the mistake is theirs! What about all these other people that have the same information? Huh? Are you going to hound the others as much as this one person??? How dare you criticise their work! You must be an unemployed fat loser with lots of time on your hands that you use only to tear other people down. For shame! It's their tree and if you don't like it, then just don't look at it! That's it, if you won't leave them alone, then you are blocked.

Is anyone else's left arm going numb? Seriously, what is with the rage? A mistaken ancestor isn't going to bring about a nuclear war or kill puppies. It isn't a critique of you as a person for someone else to point out the mistake. It's not a big deal. But Blangers think it is a very big deal. And it's someone else's fault! Unless another person has access to your tree and is randomly inserting people without your knowledge, then how is someone else to blame? Even if you have invited a crazy realtive to your tree who is desperately (and incorrectly) trying to connect you to the House of Stuart, doesn't mean you can't just go fix it. And what is with the blocking? I see people on the groups and forums saying, "Just block them and don't worry about it." Really? Because if you ignore them, the mistake goes away? Unless someone is threatening you with bodily harm or calling you names, there's no reason to start blocking people. Keep in mind, disagreement isn't bullying, it's a healthy exchange of ideas.

You're wrong today, You're wrong tomorrow

One thing I have noticed from the folks completely unwilling to even consider the errors in their tree is a knee-jerk reaction that this one error calls into question their entire tree. Rarely is this true. Yes, you will now have to erase (or at least call into question) a portion of your tree. But isn't it the thrill of the hunt that drives us? Instead of imagining all the work you're going to have to put into fixing this problem, how about focusing on how you'll feel when you finally know the right answer? It's not actually about the error, is it? It's about admitting you're wrong. I know, it's hard. We all struggle with the skill of admitting our mistakes. Even I can first take a defensive posture on a discussion if it calls into question any "fact" I believe in firmly. Sometimes I've dug in too hard and come out with egg on my face.

Which is why I've learned to take a "question everything" approach. If I haven't seen it with my own eyes, I now qualify any statement to include "supposedly", "according to", "so I've heard", or some variation. If I wasn't a witness, I question the sources about their reliability. Were they there? Did they hear it from someone else? Is it written or oral history? Do separate independent witnesses confirm the report? And this goes well beyond genealogy. I'll rarely share a Facebook post without checking two or more hoax sites to make sure I'm not perpetuating a lie (much to my trigger-happy friends' dismay). I don't spread celebrity gossip. And I sure as heck wheel away from political or religious debates. Seriously, those last two are no-wins. I may point out a falsehood or misconception, but I love my friends and family enough to stop short of shaking the pillars of their faith. Forget about getting me to talk about ongoing criminal investigations. Police and lawyers don't make every discovery public, so unless I'm on the jury, it makes no nevermind to me. I can't tell you the number of times my dad and I will start talking about an actor only for both of us to stop and head to IMDB to "settle it". The point is, if you can't back up an assertion with consistent evidence, then there's no solid footing to stand your ground when conflicting stories come to light.

In genealogy, you won't always be able to prove definitively the facts that make up your tree. Sometimes it will be an absence of evidence that speaks volumes. Because your case may be best made by circumstantial evidence, the most important phrase for many genealogists can be "a thorough and reasonably exhaustive search". Before you make any "solid" claim about any ancestor, ask yourself if you've made a thorough and exhaustive search. If someone comes around saying you've got it wrong, consider their evidence. Did you review those materials and dismissed them due to overwhelming evidence in another direction? Or have you never seen them before? Does the other person even have evidence to the contrary of your case? And what is a thorough and exhaustive search? It's all about available records. Have you looked for all census records, birth certificates, death notices, land grants, newspaper articles, etc. that could possibly exist for the relative in question? Online only research isn't thorough or exhaustive. Censuses used as the only residence evidence isn't thorough or exhaustive. And while I appreciate volunteer researchers (and count myself among them), I question the exhaustiveness of any research I haven't done myself, especially if I'm not paying for it. Research I pay for has to come with evidence of where the person has looked, even if nothing was found, in order to prove the thoroughness of the research (or at least should if the researcher is worth their salt). A volunteer usually just plugs the names and dates you give them into a database and pulls the best match for you. Not always wrong, but there's going to be that possibility that one of the other matches is better. My biggest peeve on the volunteer front is when a person requests information on a relative and all they give is a name, no dates or locations, but volunteers start flooding them with "possible" record matches. It's so easy to get it wrong in such a situation. And when your less than exhaustive research proves to bear poisoned fruit, it's not the volunteer that chokes on it.

There are many many times in my own research that I've been wrong. I may still be wrong on some maiden names that are proving to be my brickwalls. If someone comes along who can tell me what the right name is, and can provide even a small amount of evidence to support their claim, then it's time to consider it. I know that my so-called "brickwall" in my maternal line is due to a less than thorough search. But I either have to pay a local researcher or make a research trip as the information isn't available online. And I am a total "thrill of the hunt" genealogist. I'll wait til I can look for myself, thank you. But if a relative comes along who says, "hey, I have that information as I've already made that trip," I'm not going to look in that gift horse's mouth, even if the trip proves I'm on the wrong path.

I will pretend my grandmother is right behind me and accept these clues with grace.

13 January 2014

Oh the Games We Play

Well, hello there! Thanks to some professional endeavors, personal genealogy triumphs, holiday parties, and the general malaise of writer's block, it's been a while. As I start this new year with new energy for my work and research, I dive back into my blog with hope of new exciting topics to propel us further in our shared passion for genealogy! Now, if you're like me, you've spent a great deal of your holiday season with family, talking about family, sharing stories about family........ boring your family to tears with genealogy. I honestly can't remember the last time I didn't "genealogify" a conversation. At my father's Christmas dinner, I became acutely aware of just how much I had talked about the family tree or the family history discoveries of my friends. I also found myself nearly cutting my tongue in two biting down to keep from "correcting" a relative who insisted we were royalty or that their aunt had traced their other side's native history in a weekend. It was a bit disheartening to think that, as of now, I have no young successor in my immediate family to receive the benefit of my research. My younger cousins haven't built the skill set needed to patiently research, nor the enthusiasm for family. I also realised that my research was beginning to feel more like a chore I had to do, rather than the fun game of "hide and seek" I'd always enjoyed.

That's what I was missing. The fun of a game. Suddenly, I lit upon a new idea. When I was a child, the family get-togethers often included board games. A great deal of my favorite family stories start with "So there we were in the middle of the most intense Monopoly game of the century...." or end with "...then your uncle accused your father and aunt of conspiracy, vowed to never play Risk again, and stormed out of the room." Many members of my family still have personal game nights. I'm going to make more of an effort to join them. More than that, I want to start a few to engage those relations that have lost the tradition. But I also have a very sneaky reason: I can "genealogify" anything. Here is a perfect opportunity to get family together for story and photo trading and build up the skill level of potential future researchers! Hear me out.

I am the Clue Queen. Admittedly, I'll have to let a few wins slip past to keep people playing this one, but there is no better illustration of genealogy research. Seriously. Okay, so the rules of Clue are so simple. Someone has been murdered. You have a list of suspects, murder weapons, and rooms that the actual murder took place. Each one is on their own card. You shuffle the suspect cards and select one without looking at it. You do the same for the weapon and room cards. The three selected cards are placed in an envelope in the center of the board. No one knows what's on those cards. The rest of the cards are shuffled together and distributed to the players. Using the process of elimination, you are then supposed to guess who, what, and where of the murder. Obviously the cards in your hand aren't involved in the murder, but what about everyone else's? That's where "suspect" and "accuse" come into play. As your piece moves about the board, you "suspect" a person, weapon, and room. If other players have one of those things in their hand, they can privately display them to you so you can eliminate them. When you are sure of how it all went down, you "accuse". If you accuse, you check the envelope. If you are right, you win. If you are wrong, you are out the rest of the game as the other players suspect and accuse without you.

Skills learned: Everything in genealogy is a process of elimination. Every search is going to have multiple potential records for your one ancestor. Is it this census record or that one? The only way to confirm the right one is to evaluate the evidence. Is it the right name? Is he approximately the right age? Are others named on the record known family? Do the ages of other family members coincide with what you know? Is the location correct or within a reasonable traveling distance from his last known residence? In the ideal situation, there is a list of records that you easily eliminate, because only one meets all the criteria. In real life, however, you are often going to find yourself looking at records that have the same name, around the same time, and in the same place. Which one is your guy? Could it be he was recorded more than once? Is this his father, brother, cousin, or an unrelated man? This is where it's best to "suspect" rather than "accuse". For Ancestry users, you have a Shoebox option that allows you to save the record for later viewing. I never let the Shoebox get too full without reviewing and eliminating records. What I try to do is search one ancestor at a time and then review my potential records before moving on to another ancestor. For those who don't have Ancestry, don't use the Shoebox, or are paper people... bookmark the link, write the info down, print it out. Whatever you do, don't save it to your tree or source it as fact in your notes. Yes, it's so easy to say we'll one day go back and reevaluate that potential record. But when did you last look at that record? I bet it's been a while. While you're putting off confirming that record, others are taking your potential record as gospel and one day you'll stumble across their work and think "oh, they found the proof" when what really happened was the snake eating it's own body. Then we all lose the game.

Pictionary and Charades
Oh this is so much fun! You group off into teams or pairs and take turns choosing a word or phrase. One member of the team then draws a picture (Pictionary) or acts out a scene (Charades) about the word or phrase, but they can't speak or give verbal clues. The rest of the team must guess what's going on within a time limit. Sometimes it seems the team is psychic and just knows. Other times you'd think they had never met before. I know there's some kind of point system, but usually this one goes on in my family until someone is hoarse from screaming their answers or frustrated that their team "doesn't get it". My brother usually wins this one. He sits back while the rest of his team shouts out a guess at every line and squiggle ("A circle! Uh, a line! Is it a cookie????"). Suddenly he calmly states the answer while the rest of them are still trying to figure out if it's a car or an elephant (seriously, my dad cannot draw to save his life).

Skills learned: Ah the power of assumptions! What often defeats the Pictionary player is their own assumptions. My brother wins because he asks himself "what does this drawing mean to the other person?" When looking for clues on your ancestor, ask what the records mean to them. Why would someone bother creating said record? Why did they move? Why did they leave their family? Why did they join the military (or decline service)? Why did they chose the names they did for their children? Let's consider that last one. There's always the traditional names passed down from generation to generation. But just like today, celebrity can influence names. In a fit of patriotism, your family starts naming the children George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy. They chose to name their children after their favorite authors or actors of the time. Or maybe they chose a famous religious leader like Lorenzo Dow. If you didn't know better, you may assume there was a familial connection that they were honoring. Or it would just be a "weird" name. But knowing that Lorenzo Dow was an author and well-traveled preacher may clue you in to your family's religious beliefs (and the potential records to be found in their churches). Knowing what famous people may have influenced their lives enough to gain immortality in a namesake may hold clues to the one thing a genealogist loves the most: the true heart of another human being.

While many games are held aloft as the end all be all of family warfare, I truly believe that no other game can tear a family apart like Risk. The board is a map of the world. You chose a color for your army and are given a set of units to start the game. The players take turns placing one unit on a country/region to "claim" it. Once all areas are claimed, you use the rest of your army to fortify your defenses. But choose carefully. You don't want to spread too thin, or have too much of your army surrounded by itself. For as the game commences, you are given cards that you can trade in for more military and you begin a campaign to conquer it all. You choose another player and challenge their army adjoining one of your territories. You each roll a number of dice based on the size of your army (and how much you choose to invest in the attack) to determine the attrition. If you eliminate the enemy army, you move part of your army into the new territory. If you lose the battle, you could abandon the attack or lose your territory. At the same time you are plotting to destroy, your opponents are plotting to destroy you....... so watch your six. I've seen Risk games last hours, even days. On more than one occasion, the winner was determined by who had the most territory before my uncle flipped the board and declared the unfairness of playing with cheaters. Dad usually one this one, because of his deep love for military history and tactics. He usually only lost when relatives made peace accords and ganged up on him. My fiance, who is not a board game player, was the only one to legit defeat him. When my dad complemented him on his win, he shrugged and said "British". And it's true. He is British and there is a reason why a small island ruled so much of the world!

Skills learned: When you play Risk, or at least classic Risk, you are learning military strategy, geography, and migration. Australia is an excellent place to start your campaign because of it's defensibility. There's usually two ways in, but both require you to control Indonesia. Forget about early control of Russia. As the largest landmass, there's just too many fronts for a beginning army. Best practice is to gain control of the rest of the world and push back opponent armies into Russia. Once their numbers are reduced, it's all clean up. Now, using a classic version of the game is an excellent way to teach geography to children. The paths allowed between continents also follow traditional (albeit basic) migration routes. So it can be an excellent way to discuss why the family may not have come directly to the US from the Ukraine. Or it can illustrate why your family may have always identified as German, but your DNA results suggest some Western Asian or North African DNA. And of course, it can foster an interest in military history for you or your children. Like I said, dad won most often because he knew military history. While one player was deciding where to place his armies, dad would tell us about the Civil War, Vietnam, War of the Roses, Spain's colonization of the America's........ He'd discuss Sun Tzu, Hannibal, General Grant, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and other influential leaders and strategists all while the game raged on. I know the military history of a few of my family members, so I could personalise the "history lesson" with the next generation. How fun!

Stratego is another military game. The board is a territory that is divided between your army and your opponents. The point of the game is to capture your opponent's flag. But be warned, besides the randomly placed army, your opponent also has placed a few mines in your way. Each time one of your pieces advances, trying to discover the flag, it could run up against a more powerful enemy or mine and be removed from the game. Each piece looks the same in shape and color, so the only way to know when you've reached the flag, is to plow ahead and try them out.

Skills learned: I like two things about this game. The first is that it can teach you about ranks. There are privates, sergeants, generals, etc. The higher the rank, the more "powerful" the piece. Highest rank wins. So you can use this time to discuss rank hierarchy in military. Talk with relatives about what ranks your ancestors held. Dad was Navy, my uncle was Marine, and my grandfather was Army, so we often discussed differences in rank by military branch and who would overrule whom on the field between them. It got us discussing enlisted versus officers and their experiences with "the draft".  And these discussions often led me to wonder if there was a document out there related to an ancestor's promotion to a higher rank or discharge. The second thing I love is that this is another example of process of elimination. The flag could be any place in their army. You could just plunge ahead and hope for the best, but your best strategy is going to be knowing your opponent. Where would he place his flag? And when looking for your ancestor in a record collection or choosing between similar documents, it can help to look at them not from your perspective, but your ancestor's.

MadGabs and Telephone
Most children have played Telephone at some point in their school lives. Everyone sits in a circle. One person whispers a sentence into the ear of their neighbor. No repeats, so you hear what you hear. The neighbor turns to the person beside them and whispers what they heard. The last person in the circle then proclaims what was whispered in their ear and everyone laughs at how a simple sentence has been convoluted and changed in the end. MadGabs is similar. You pull a card and read a nonsense sentence out loud. The more you do it, the faster or slower you do it, the more you piece together the real meaning. The example from the commercial (so as to not ruin the fun should you play) is "eye mull of ma sheen." Say it out loud and you quickly hear "I'm a love machine", which gives you a nice ear worm for the day. The game has a time limit of course, and points awarded for correct guesses to choose a winner.

Skills learned: I doubt there is any family historian who has never had a name misspelled in a record. My 2nd great grandfather Briody was listed as Brady in a census. My 2nd great grandfather Eonas was listed as Jonas on a birth record for one of his children. And there's still some debate if my 3rd great grandmother's maiden name was Colby or Covey! When looking for relatives, it's often good to say their names out loud. Say them fast. Say them slow. Say them with an accent. Spell out each possible misrepresentation. Spell them phonetically, even. Then check the records against those "alternatives". You may be surprised to find them in plain sight! I also like this particular game as an illustration about what we "hear" and what is "true". I had a friend ask me to help me with her Native American research. She had heard her great grandmother was Cherokee (aren't they all?). Well, her great grandmother was not. At first this upset her greatly, but soon came a pleasant enough surprise. Since we knew more about her great grandmother, I decided to dig up some "real" information about her family (to cheer her up). It turned out that there was a Native American line. Her 3rd great grandmother was in fact native. After we talked for a while, she began to realise that she had heard the stories about her great grandmother from her grandmother. So grandma was most likely saying "great grandma", meaning her great grandmother, not my friend's. It was all in how she heard it. When I get lost in a line, I will often go back over what I've "known" and try to "hear" it for the first time again.

Monopoly is a fun game and if you've never played it, I am so sorry for you. The board is a series of squares representing "land". Your piece travels around and if you land on a square, and if no one has yet done so, you can purchase the property from the "bank". If the property is owned, you pay the owner rent for landing there. If you own property, you can add houses to increase the value (and subsequently the rent). You win by bankrupting your opponents. Many families add different rules, like the "Free Parking" rule. There's a square marked "Free Parking". If you land there, in a normal game, you don't have to worry about paying a rent. But in an "advanced" game, you get a pot of money for landing there. What money is contributed to the pot? Well there are penalty cards you can land on. In the advanced game, you put your penalty fee in a pot instead of just paying the person designated banker. Some games require a player to own the complete collection of a series of properties before adding homes to any of those squares. In any case, it's not always the player that runs the board buying all the properties first that ends up owning everything at the end. And some times, the winner is the one who was willing to forego a property with high rent in favor of a series of properties with cheaper upkeep.

Skills learned: What can a genealogist possibly learn from Monopoly? Only the most important skill! Monopoly has always been a great way to teach younger folk the power of budgets, and it works for genealogists too. No one place will hold all the records for all of our ancestors. Heck, no one place will have all the records for one of our ancestors. And no matter how hard we try, eventually we are going to have to pay for something. It could be a subscription to a pay site, a membership to a society, a record from an archive, or a professional researcher. In the game of Monopoly, a player could go around buying up all the properties they land on. But it could leave them in the lurch should they land on an owned property or receive a penalty card. And if no one lands on the properties they own, they won't get any of their money back. In genealogy, you could pay for websites and records willy-nilly. But you could end up bankrupting your budget on unrelated records. You could be short the cash needed to buy that one packet from the courthouse that could solve your brick wall. So it's all about budgeting and patience. And just like Boardwalk (the most expensive rent on the board), you could run across a really great packet of information on your relative that may not be worth the money........ at least your first go 'round the board. An example of this is a recent trip to the state archives taken by a friend of mine. She found a court document about her relative that was 500 pages. 500! The detail was amazing. The information was dizzying. The copy fees were insane! In the end, her desire to possess this record was outweighed by her desire to be able to continue to feed her family. Does it mean she'll never own it? Probably not, but it's gonna take a few passes over "Go" first. When you are choosing where to spend your money, take the time to consider how often you'll "land" there as well. Boardwalk is the most expensive rent, this is true. But it's also less likely to be landed upon by renters, so you'll make less money on it than a spot more middle road. When looking at genealogy pay sites, browse their collection titles. I may love looking through old newspapers, but if GenealogyBank doesn't have editions from areas my family lived in (or at the time they lived there), there is no point in paying for their records. And pay per view sites like ScotlandsPeople are best when you have enough information on your ancestor to narrow the results down to more specific possibilities. If I want just one record on one ancestor, I may wait to pay for access until I have more information or relatives to work with.

This last game is really just a lot of fun. No specific skill set to practice here. In Life, you start off as a single person in a little car. You choose to go to college or head directly into the workforce. You get married and have a random number of kids. You buy stock and insurance. You may even go back to school for higher education later in Life. Eventually you retire. Winner gets to retirement first, has the best financial value at retirement, or (if it's my family) is the one who declares "I'm bored now!" when they land on a car accident for the third time.

So why is Life on the list? Why, because it is Life. Your player does things that many of our ancestors will have done. My niece loves this game (she names all her daughters after me, and yes, we have to name our children- her rule). And the whole time we're playing, I'm thinking about the records. My player chooses college..... there would be yearbooks. Maybe I could find an announcement at their graduation. Oh, married! There'll be banns, bonds, and licenses. Yay, twins! Birth record, newspaper announcement, possibly a naming pattern. Dang, a fire. News articles, Sanborn maps, and maybe medical/death records. Stock investment payoff? Business records, tax records, and maybe deeds. Next time you play Life, try to list the records you may find. Do it in your head if your family thinks you're crazy like mine does. If you have an awesome family that loves history and genealogy, engage others. Every time an event happens, have everyone call out possible records and give points or "cash" as a prize to tally in the game.

Actually, that last bit sounds like fun. I need to find the awesome family that does that.