Friday, January 13, 2012

Not Knowing What to Look For

[Johnathan Clayborn]
For those of you who did not already know this about me, I am an avid genealogist. I really do enjoy this pursuit immensely. It allows me an excellent avenue to utilize my analytical thinking, and, as the running joke among genealogists goes; it’s the gift that keeps giving.
There have been several major advancements in genealogy over the last few decades. 30 or 40 years ago you had to go to a specific library and browse through census records on microfilm. You had to search each and every page by hand, and you had to already have some pretty good idea of what you were looking for (not to mention you had to be pretty adept at reading old-fashioned handwriting). Today’s genealogist can do a large amount of research right from their home computer without leaving the house.
There are some people who believe that those interested in genealogy are only interested in it because of their attempts to unearth “moneyed forebears”. However, this opinion seems to be one that has originated outside of the genealogical circles. Almost every single genealogist that I’ve ever corresponded with (and there have been quite a few) is interested in this pursuit to answer one simple, yet burning question: where do I come from? They get as excited about finding an ancestor who was a poor farmer as they do in finding someone who was an important figure of society. Being a genealogist myself I can understand why people may have that perception. The pragmatism of genealogical research is that more influential people tend to leave behind more records, thus making them easier to find. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in the non-influential people.  I’m personally saddened with part of my research. One of my ancestors was a Cherokee Indian who wandered onto a farm at age 3. He didn’t speak English and no one could locate his family. The farmers adopted him and raised him as their own. I have copies of the newspaper articles that talk about the situation, however, I will never know anything more about my Cherokee ancestors or their deeds. They certainly aren’t “moneyed forebears”, but they are quite interesting to me all the same as they make up some small part of who I am.
One of the groups that I follow is the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF). I’ll explain more about them in a few minutes. However, in their recent newsletter they included a link to Greta’s Genealogy Blog. Greta had an article that I found quite interesting as she was talking about the perception that genealogy has received from the mainstream public. The popular website came up during this discussion.
Now, on the one hand, I do like the Ancestry services. Their Family Tree Maker software is my personal favorite genealogy program, and if you are looking for generic records, their site is pretty good. A subscription to their vital records is well worth the money. However, on the other hand I’m very disappointed and kind of upset at them. Their recent ad campaigns are actually somewhat insulting and definitely deceptive. Their current tagline is “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for, you just have to start looking”.
What a crock. Really? Ancestry, you should know better. For one thing, as noble a pursuit as genealogy is, it’s not something that you can just pick up and start by poking about a website randomly. There’s a lot of stuff that you need to know before you start looking. For example; why should you start looking in 1930? What type of records are you looking for? What types of pitfalls should I avoid? What resources should I avoid? What if I get stuck?
As any long-time genealogist knows the Privacy Act keeps all vital records locked away and privatized for 73 years. As such the records from 1930 are the most current records that are readily available to the mainstream public. Next year, 2013, the records from 1940 will be revealed and unlocked and then you will be able to search those as well. If you are new to genealogy are you just going to know this? Probably not. Would that make it hard to find your father? Or your grandfather? Probably, depending on your age.
Next, what types of records are you looking for? Birth Certificates, Death Certificates, Military Records, Tax Rolls, Voter Lists, Deeds, Wills, Census Records. As a “noob” to the field of genealogy would you understand the differences? Would you know about the inherent and expected inconsistencies between them? Probably not. Back in the day the Census Takers used to visit each house in person. They often would guess at the age of the people that they were recording, especially small children. So, it’s entirely possible for the same person to have different ages on different census records. Also, prior to WWII, most people in the US did not know how to read or write. Because of that the census takers would record your name how they thought it should be spelled. I have one ancestor on the census who’s name Clyborn, Clybourn, Clayburn, Claybourne, and finally Clayborn.  This is completely normal for the census records, but new people probably wouldn’t know that. This is also the very same reason that the Soundex was invented. It uses a complex mathematical algorithm to display search results that sound alike phonetically, regardless of spelling.
And then there’s the SSDI, the Social Security Death Index. This is a great place to start when researching family members. It’s often easiest to start from the end and work toward the beginning. If you know when they died, you can get their vital information, including their SSN, from the SSDI and that greatly helps you ensure that you’ve got the right person. But sometimes people aren’t included in the SSDI. For example, people who are murdered are not included on the list. has some novelty “resources” that are actually, quite flawed and laughable. Their records database is excellent. The private user trees can be helpful at times. But their “One World Tree” program is a joke. One World Tree (OWT) is an automated bot program that Ancestry developed. It scours the data of every single tree that users have uploaded onto the website and attempts to stitch them all together to map out the family history of the entire world. It’s an ambitious project to be sure. However, the bot program is highly unreliable. It regularly attaches people that don’t have any relationship at all. It also has other flaws where, for example, if people are missing birthdates in their data, it will create a “loop”. It will have five or six people strung together, but then it will have the father of the oldest person in the string be the first person that you started with.  Due to that I only very rarely use it, and then it’s just to see if someone has listed other resources as part of their file.
Many genealogists go to the Mormon Church to search genealogical records. As part of their religion the Mormons research their deceased ancestors in an effort to convert them over to Mormonism so that they can be saved. Many people agree that the Mormon Church has one of the largest privately-funded genealogical databases in the world. Many researchers will take a trip over to the Mormon Libraries to glean data from their records. Even if you are not Mormon, they will still permit you to dig through their archives. Other people prefer to access their records remotely through their website; No disrespect to the Mormons, but while this may be one of the largest resources, it’s not exactly one of the most accurate. I have personally found several egregious errors in their data.  As with many other large projects, they rely heavily on volunteer work and the data on their site is only as accurate as the volunteers who uploaded it. As such I would advise anyone using their information to take it with a grain of salt.
Another key thing that every new genealogist should know is this: document everything. Okay, really that should be said for all aspects of your life, but especially for genealogy work. Sometimes you come across conflicting data and you need to compare your sources, or sometimes you find that little gem of data that’s super-hard to find and then you lose your files and you don’t remember where you saw it again. It’s just easier if you write it all down. Keep records; who told you? When? Where did you find it? Title of the book? Publication date? Author's name? ISBN? Page Number? Can you make copies or include a link? etc. Sometimes, especially with websites, the page moves or just disappears. If it's not recorded then you may never find it again.
If you get stuck, there’s always a technique called “cluster genealogy” that most new people don’t know about. It basically plays off of the principle that “no one is an island”. The idea is that if you can no longer find records about your direct ancestor, try searching the records of your ancestor’s siblings. In many cases the siblings had the same parents and it can lead you to the answer.
The most recent breakthrough in genealogy is “genetic genealogy”. Scientists can now track your biological ancestry through mitochondrial DNA (female side) or through Y-DNA (male side). This is quite a fascinating technique. Through its use I discovered that my family was adopted in the 1850’s and my genetic roots are not that of Clayborn. But now I’m stuck and I have no idea who I am. Even with all of the years of practice and the skills that I’ve developed I can’t seem to unravel this mystery. I’ve found a document here and a document there, but some are hard to read and most yield no clues. This is where the SMGF comes in. There are websites like Y-Search (the new home of the now-defunct and SMGF that contain databases of people’s genetic codes. If I can find a match through there it would prove who I am genetically related to. This, in turn, would give me another angle to look at the records where the trail goes cold and possibly find the right answer. It’s kind of a longshot, but my DNA has two extremely rare markers in it so when I do find a match there will no doubting it. One marker happens in 1% of the population in my haplogroup (genetic cousins for lack of a better term), and the other marker happens in 0.5% of the population. The odds of someone else having those exact same mutations that’s not related to me is a statistical impossibility. But, if the commercials would have you believe, genealogy is a snap and you can do it blindfolded. And you probably can if you don’t care at all about making sure that your data is accurate or correct.

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.