A Mystery Solved – Augustus Edwin Austin


 Augustus Edwin Austin was my great grandfather. I know from his death certificate that he died from a cerebral hemorrhage (brain bleed) that resulted from a cranial fracture. i knew that he died at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. My understanding, based on various comments, was that the injury was sustained elsewhere, possibly in Idaho, but I could not prove this. I had no idea why he wouldn’t have been hospitalized before returning to Utah. I also had no idea what the nature of the accident (I assumed it was an accident) was that could lead to such an injury. 

I tried Google, looking for Augustus Edwin Austin and accident, but to avail. When that didn’t work, I tried turning to newspaper archives but didn’t make much more progress. I found death notices and the cause of death, but no details. In retrospect, one mistake I made was searching for information about an accident. He wasn’t injured in an accident, it was assault. 

I learned this through another archive (this time using MyHeritage.com. Here’s what I found:

Ed Austin Dies, Third Victim in a Row over a Robe 
Kalispell -Oct. 6 (AP) – Edward Augustus Austin, who died at Salt Lake City yesterday, was struck over the head at Kila, Aug. 17 by Dan “Dody” Duncan after the latter had shot and killed Bud Neas and Russell Austin. 

Edward Austin was in a hospital here until September 11, when he was discharged. His physician said that he lost the  sight in one eye and that a fractured skull received in the beating could have produced the death at Salt Lake City.
The fatal shooting and beating climaxed a quarrel over the ownership of a cowhide robe.

Authorities said Duncan was pummeled by Russell Austin and retaliated by shooting him and Neas and beating Edward Austin with the weapon.

Now that is some story! I still don’t know who any of these other people were, even Russell Austin. I’m not sure what the “row” was. That’s a word that almost makes it sound like a bar fight. I’d expect a mugging, but it sounds like there was quite a fight, involving several people. It could have been almost anywhere: in a home, a business, camp. Anywhere. We may never know the details, but this certainly adds character Edwin Austin (and yes, that is his correct name). 

The Death of Charles Woodhouse

Charles Woodhouse's ViolinCharles Woodhouse, my third great grandfather was a tailor living in Adwick Le Street, Yorkshire, England. His son, John Woodhouse, who is my second great grandfather, was converted to the LDS (or Mormon) church when he was nineteen. His entire family joined, and they would eventually travel from Liverpool to New Orleans on the emigrant ship Ellen, followed by  seven day journey by riverboat to St. Louis, Missouri. John Woodhouse and most of the family would travel by covered wagon (in the Jepson Company) to Salt Lake City. But Charles died in a drowning accident, recorded, almost in passing, by John Woodhouse in his pioneer journal (on p. 20):
During our stay in St. Louis my brother Charles had a severe sickness his living through it was a marvel. We lost our youngest brother Norman, and my father was accidentally drowned over in Illinois where he was at work.
Unfortunately, John Woodhouse’s Pioneer Journal is not a contemporary account, but a series of recollections written down quite a bit later, in Utah. He did keep a journal, but the it was lost, presumably during the journey. It seems that he did not want to dwell on the details of his father’s death.

There is a family tradition that he was actually in Illinois where he was performing with a group of musicians where he became drunk, fell into the river, and drowned. There are actually several versions of the story, and it has described as a “hole”, a flooded basement, and even a barrel! One version of the story can be found at findagrave.com (memorial #40176198):

Charles Woodhouse died in St. Louis, Missouri. He was coming home from performing on his violin with a musical group to earn money to travel on to Utah. He had too much to drink and fell in a open hole filled with water. He was found floating with his violin floating next to him.

[Read more…]

It’s time to start writing

pocket watch

Image credit: Kayla Kandzorra

It’s  February, time for The Family History Writing Challenge. You have signed up, haven’t you? Regardless of whether you’ve formally registered, now is a perfect time to start recording your family history in a reader friendly form. You probably have quite a bit of information stored in some type of data files. Depending on the software you use, it may be stored online, in the native file format of programs like Family Tree Maker, or possibly in GEDCOM files. You may also keep your records in paper charts and notebooks. Regardless of which of these techniques you use, your family history is not likely to be in a format the most members of your family are likely to sit down and read. That’s what the writing challenge is all about.

A good way to get started is by writing life sketches, short summaries of your ancestor’s life story. Fortunately, you have most of the information you need to get started. If you’re using software such as Family Tree Maker or a web application such as Ancestry.com, there is probably a timeline view. What it’s called may vary from application to application, but it is a list of facts or events in your ancestor’s life in chronological order, along with supporting documentation for each. If you’re not using software that does this get out a piece of paper and start listing events in chronological order. Include the time and place (if you have it), a description of the event, an information source (such as a birth certificate, parish register or grave marker), and be sure to leave room for additional details. Most of the time this will be all you have, but keep your eyes out for additional details. Maybe you will know a bit about the church where your ancestors were married, or the town where they lived. Perhaps your ancestor owned property. How much? Where? What did he or she do with it? It may have been a farm or ranch, or it may have been a business such as store or blacksmith shop. It’s details like this that allow you to piece together a picture of your ancestor’s life.

The next step is to write this information out in the form of declarative sentences. In can help to imagine that a family member or friend has asked you to tell him or her about your ancestor. You might say something like: “David Andrews was born in a small town not far from Cleveland, Ohio. He was the third of seven children.” Don’t worry if you only have one or a few sentences for each event you have recorded. That’s okay. You can always go back and add more information later, when it becomes available to you. Right now, you’re just trying to take compiled information and put it down in narrative form. You can worry about polishing it later. Remember also that you have a lot of ancestors, and multiple life events for each of them. You will be busy!

There’s a funny thing about writing. When you start writing life sketches you will most likely start thinking of questions you hadn’t thought to ask, and you may discover you know more than you realized. So just start. Recording life events in narrative form may seem like a mechanical exercise at first, but you’re sure to find that some of your ancestors’ life stories will really start coming together, and you will soon discover that you have some interesting stories to tell. You probably already do. And if other people in your family are asking you about your ancestors, you know that you do.

Using task lists to stay organized

Family history research is a lot like detective work. Sometimes, you will be able to quickly find the information you need about a person or a family, but more often than not, you have to work to find the information you’re looking for. In fact, except for the obvious case of vital dates and place names (and they’re not as simple as it appears on the surface), you may not know what you’re looking for until you find it. Instead, in the process of reading through the documents available to you, you find little intriguing details, such as an allusion to a girl trapped in a mine shaft, a brief mention of someone having contracted smallpox or cholera, or Quaker meeting minutes in which a person you are studying is voted out of the meeting, In fact, these are examples of tantalizing details I’ve come across in my own research. Usually, I would have no idea of what to do with them at the time, so all I could do is record them and (temporarily) move on. In reporter or detective jargon, these are “leads”, hints or details that can lead us to more information as we chase them down, even if at the start we have no idea how helpful they’ll be. I started to say important, but that’s not really right. If a girl is trapped in a mine shaft, that is important. It may be that we will have ha hard fitting it into a coherent narrative, or even finding any more details than we have. It may be that we can find no corroboration or additional sources, but if we can, then we’ve taken a big step towards writing an interesting chapter of our family history.

Different people will have their own preferred method of organizing leads and preliminary information, and I do not pretend that there is any one best solution for everyone. Instead, I’ll briefly consider a feature of both Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com: task lists. When you come across a piece of information that you need to investigate further, you need to record that somewhere. At first, you may just be able to remember it, or write it down on a notepad, but as your family tree grows, and as the number of documents and photographs you’ve collected grows, a more systematic approach can really be helpful. In Family Tree Maker, there is a task pane in Plan View, and it is likely the first place you will see the a task list.

task list  in TM3

There are several things to notice here. First of all, the task has a priority. I set it to low because this is an item I want to come back to when I have time. It’s not keeping me from making progress in other areas, nor is there much of a risk of making mistakes if I don’t investigate this lead right away. Finally, it’s an interesting story, one I really want to investigate, but it’s not a vital date or other data element that is central to genealogy. So, by setting the priority to low, I’m not saying it’s unimportant or uninteresting. Rather, I’m setting my own priorities. Next, note that the task is associated with a specific person. You can create general tasks, and this is normally the only type of task you will create in Plan View, but most tasks will be associated with a specific person. This is important because, most of the time, you will move from one person to another while doing research, and you need to be able to keep track of what you want to do when you come back to the person you’re working on. The task has a creation date, and this can be important. You may wish to filter by task age so that old tasks aren’t simply forgotten. Or, on the other hand, you may write something down and come back to it thinking, “Why did I want to do that?” It may be that a task simply is relevant anymore, and knowing its age can help you decide whether or not to keep it.

person tasks in FTM3If you look at the toolbar above the tasks, you will see several buttons. One allows you to create new tasks. This is the only one that is enabled (not grayed out) because no tasks are selected. There are also buttons that allow you to edit tasks (for example, to change the wording), delete them, remove completed tasks, or apply a filter. A filter is a rule that can be used to select a subset of tasks, making it easier for you to see what you need to focus on. You can also print your task list in Plan View.

Most of the time, though, you will be working on specific people and will want to work with tasks associated with people. In Person View, select a particular person and be sure the Tree tab is selected (not Details). Then what you see will be something like this. Notice that there are toolbars. The one on top allows you to select Facts (the birthdates, marriage dates and so on that you usually think of when you think of genealogy), Media (usually photographs and scanned documents), Notes (additional details that you want to keep track of in your family tree – think of these as marginal notes), Web Links (bookmarks for websites that contain further information or are helpful in the context of this person), and Tasks. Since the last of these (tasks) is selected, we have secondary toolbar just below it which is very much like the toolbar we just saw in Plan View. It is here that you can create tasks linked to a particular person. You don’t have to go back here to view these tasks, you see all of them in Plan View (that way you don’t forget!) but you can edit tasks, delete them, or mark them complete here in the same way.

What if you don’t use Family Tree Maker or similar software? You can still maintain task lists using paper or your favorite note management tool. Evernote is quite popular among genealogists,it is device independent and has some nice  features for sorting notes. If you want to associate tasks with specific people, you probably want a method of assigning unique identifiers to people, and then you can use that identifier to tag the task. It would take us too far afield to discuss schemes for assigning identifiers to people right now, but if you use a software tool, it will probably do this work for you. There are several numbering schemes you can use, or you can use names and sequence numbers for uniqueness.

A final option worth considering is a general purpose database. It requires more work to set up the database schemas, but you can store information about people using the database management system (DBMS) of your choice: MySQL, PostgresSQL, Microsoft Access, FileMaker Pro, etc. Realistically, though, this is a lot of work, and unless you’re a computer programmer or database administrator, you might not want to take it on. On the other hand, if you want to go this route, there’s a real opportunity to develop a tool that will benefit the genealogical community.

Remembrances part 1

[This is another in a series of first person histories, in this case, a series of memories recorded by Myra Jackson Cram.]

I didn’t realize I was the oldest Grandchild, until Val reminded me.

I remember mostly, Grandma Jackson was a stately lady, and her house always had a good smell to it and was very clean all the time.

They didn’t always have a furnace. They had a big pot-bellied stove in the corner of the dining room. Before they built the furnace room.

I remember when Laree had rheumatic fever and Grandma Jackson came down to help swab her throat with soda.

Grandma Jackson always wore a tan sweater around the house to keep warm.

She told me they lived in the little red wash house when Earl (Dad) was born. They were getting ready to go down to Grandma Pratt’s for dinner and she got Earl all cleaned up and told Grandpa to watch him while she got ready. Grandpa let him get in the dirt and she was upset at him. So she got clean clothes for Earl and she threw them at Grandpa to put on Earl. They lit it in the bathtub where she had bathed. It was the last clean ones Earl had.

Grandpa Jackson used to walk down to check on us. I remember him playing with Delma and her doll. He would sing with Delma and rock her in the chair with the doll. When Grandpa died Delma buried her doll with him.

I rode in Grandpa Jackson’s car. I think Uncle Harold was driving. Anyway, Uncle Asa always had a lot of cows in the street by his corral and the road was slick. We were going slow and hit a calf. We dragged it clear to Pop wash before we realized we were dragging it.

When Grandma Jackson got older, Aunt Leone came down every week and went through the house to keep it clean. I remember going over to Grandma Pratt’s for butter and milk when our cows were dry. Grandpa Pratt would meet us at the door and kiss us hello. Then he’d play “Silver Threads Among the Gold” on the piano and kiss us good-by. He had a broom stick mustache. He had a new green Chevrolet car he would drive in low gear all the way to Kanab.

When Grandpa Jackson died, I don’t know who, but someone, got to the sheep camp to take word of his death. When Earl (Dad) got home he was almost frozen. I remember he had frost in his ears. We all rubbed his feet and hands to get the circulation going. He rode an old mule to town. He said the snow was so deep the mule would get stuck and he would have to get off and tromp the snow down to get the mule out. I think that was the winter that someone’s team dropped into one of those old blow holes out there. They had to haul water and feed to them until they could get them out.

When Grandma Jackson was sick, Grandpa Jackson mopped the floor, on his hands and knees, for her.

Grandma Jackson told me Lindy got a BB gun for Christmas. Carol Jean had a little friend come to play and Lindy shot them with his BB gun. Grandma said she went out, got that BB gun and wrapped it around a tree.

After we moved back from Phoenix, I went up each week and did Grandma’s hair for Sunday. One week she had a little package for my birthday. She said Cecil’s Dad (Alexander Cram) gave it to her and Grandpa for a wedding present. It was a little pitcher minus the handle. She said it was a bread and milk  set. It had a dish with it when it was new. But it was minus the dish when I got it. It is a beautiful little pitcher.

[page is missing]

We got to eat red mush (cereal) at the sheep herd. Dad always got his water from the reservoir. There was so much red sand in it that it turned the mush red.

There was only one ointment at the sheep herd. Dad put Vicks on you, no matter what the ailment. One time I got sore from riding a horse bareback all day. Out came the Vicks. It didn’t feel very good. Another time Dad gave Gwen his pocketknife to use and told me not to use the big butcher knife. Of course I did anyway. I cut right down through my thumbnail. Dad put Vicks on it and wrapped it up. Boy did I bawl.

Dad and Mother took Eris, Duard and I to Kane Ranch in House Rock, about 60 miles from Fredonia. The car we were in looked like a race car. It had only one seat and was pointed at the front and the back. Since there was no rumble seat, Dad put me on the back to ride. He tied me on so I wouldn’t fall off. I guess Eris and Duard rode up front with Mom and Dad, I don’t remember. The car had more power in reverse, so every time we came to a steep hill, Dad would have to back up all the way to the top.

On our way home from church, Mother and I saw Cleon and Matlan drilling a well. They had a pipe attached to a board. The board went through the fence for leverage. They would push down on the board to raise the pipe. They let go and the pipe would hit the ground, making a hole. When they raised the pipe, I leaned down to peer in the hole. They let go of the pipe. It split my nose and I got blood all over my Sunday dress, made from tan pongee. I was six years old at the time.

One time, I put Norma down for a nap while we at Mother’s. When I went in to check on her, she was gone. We searched everywhere. When we finally found her, she was several blocks away, in the church, sitting on the front row, cracking and eating pine nuts, listening to the speaker. I had to go in, get her and haul her out.

I learned to drive in a Model T Ford. Dad would let me take it out past Fannie Ellis’ and to the cemetery. There were no fences, so I could drive all over the hills and not get into too much trouble.

We did have a few mishaps with the car. Matlan and Cleon took the old V8 Ford while Mother was in Church. They were just going to go to Red Point and back. They rolled it and Cleon broke his leg. When they took him up to Old Doc Norris to have it set, he told Mother she should be able to set bones without him. Her family had enough of them. Matlan broke both arms one time, then broke one of them again later. I was washing windows on the outside of Mom’s and Dad’s house. As I didn’t have a ladder, I was standing on the ledge in the siding. When I finished, I jumped down and broke my arm. I wasn’t very old.

I was coming home from play practice once in the V8 Ford when I passed out and hit a light pole on Main Street, just west of our house. I was coming down with the measles, or chicken pox, or something. Anyway, I wasn’t feeling too well.

I was backing the same V8 Ford out of the garage and knocked the door off. I opened the door to look behind me so I wouldn’t hit anything. The door got caught on the door jam and came right off.

Matlan and Cleon fought all the time. They enjoyed fighting and wrestling with each other. Matlan bought a pair of boxing gloves for them to use. Cleon enjoyed singing. I wish I had a tape of him yodeling. He sang all the time. Matlan and Cleon were sleeping in the old blue three-quarter bed in the living room. Mom, Gwen and I were up late, sitting at the dining room table, making flowers for Memorial Day. All at once, Cleon sat up in bed and started singing. Then Matlan got out of bed and started shadow boxing. Just as suddenly, Cleon stopped singing, and then Matlan went back to bed, and everything was quiet again. Neither one remembered anything about it the next morning. They accused us of telling stories.

Consider joining the Family History Writing Challenge

This February, The Armchair Genealogist, another genealogy blog, and one that I recommend, will be running The Family History Writing Challenge. To participate, you need to make a commitment to write a fixed number of words per day (say 250 or 500) during the 28 days of the month. It sounds like a lot more fun than ice buckets, doesn’t it? Well, it does, except for the minor detail that many of us feel fairly comfortable with the technical task of genealogical research, but when it comes to the prospect of actually writing about our family history, we freeze. We face an empty screen (or piece of paper), thinking we have nothing to say, or at least nothing anyone really cares about.

But wait, why are we studying our family history? Because it’s interesting. One of the most rewarding aspects of family history is learning enough about our ancestors that they begin to seem real to us, and not simply names and dates. We know there’s an interesting story to be told, we just don’t quite know how to start. When you register for the challenge, you will gain access to advice and ideas on how to start writing. And what i just as important, you will be making a commitment. This may not be true of everyone, but it is often simply the act of making a commitment to do something that makes it possible to overcome the mental hurdles that are holding us back. It won’t necessarily solve all your problems, you’ll likely feel tongue-tied at times, or feel that you have nothing to say. But that’s okay, just push through it. Write something. You are always free to revise it, or even just throw it away and start over. But you’re also likely to find that, as you start writing, you have more to say than you ever thought you did.

So, how can you get started? If you’re like me, you’ve already collected a number of stories in the form of newspaper clippings, reminiscences and firsthand accounts written by your ancestors. If you don’t know a few stories about your grandparents or great grandparents, someone in your family probably does. You have most likely compiled a fair amount of information on where your ancestors lived (for example, from census data). Have you ever tried looking up those place names online or in an encyclopedia? Don’t forget to look for its history. What kind of place was New York or London in 1870? How did people live? of course, you’ll want to know what your ancestors did for a living, whether they owned land or a business. Did they hold public office? Fortunately, these are all things that you typically can find in public records. With census records, the questions changed from year to year, so you may not find a detail such as national origin or occupation in one census, but it may be in another. Passenger lists are also a great place to look for information about people’s occupations. When you think about it, wouldn’t you want to know what special skills passengers on an ocean voyage had to offer? You might not need a doctor, a weaver or a blacksmith during the voyage, but it’s likely you will. I know that my second great-grandfather John Woodhouse, who was a tailor, was able to earn extra money en route to America by doing tailoring work for the officers – and he did not have much when his family left Liverpool.

Of course, everyone is different, and what is important to your family story – and how you tell it – may not be that important to another person. But that’s okay: just start collecting pieces. You don’t need to have a clear idea of the story line when you start. Writing is a discovery process. And that, by itself, is a very good reason to start writing.

Can genealogy actually help to unite us?

What role does family history play in shaping our worldview? For me, that can be  perplexing question because learning more about our ancestors can have very two very different effects on how we look at society and our place in it. Consider, first of all, that family history is just that, family history. That means that the people we spend our time studying will, to put it bluntly, be very much like us. They may have lived in a different time, they may have earned a living in a very different way, but they will belong to the same ethnic group that we do, probably speak the same language, and very possibly believe very much the same way we do. This means that we can end up with a very narrow view of the past. For many years, I didn’t have much interest in researching my genealogy and, in retrospect, I can see that this is a big part of why. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in a world that values diversity, and in which people have the opportunity to learn about different cultures, different religions, and different value systems. Why then should I be interested in focusing on white European immigrants (and, in my case, largely Mormon pioneers)? There are obvious answers, of course, beginning with the fact that the people I was learning about are my family, and preserving information about our families and our history is a worthy undertaking. But there is still an obvious tension here between the values of multiculturalism and diversity on the one hand, and studying our genealogy, and our blood lines (a term that still makes me cringe a bit), on the other. Truth be told, as a teenager and young adult, genealogy was also a bit boring to me! It’s all well and good to make a high-sounding argument about why we shouldn’t be interested in a subject when, truth be told, we’re just bored.

On the other hand, genealogical research can tell us a lot about what we have in common. Many of my ancestors go back to Colonial America, some of them came from England much later (in the nineteenth century), with still others coming hear from Scotland or Ireland. But they all have something in common: they were immigrants. Immigration has become a divisive issue in recent years, and those of us whose families have been in America “forever” all came from somewhere, and learning about our ancestors can help to make the immigrant experience real to us in a more personal way than historical accounts of people with whom we have no immediate connection  does. As an aside, I should note that I’m not thinking about the experience of Native Americans, or the original inhabitants of other parts of the world. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Traditional genealogical research is vulnerable to what is called confirmation bias. Put simply, we may start out with certain assumptions about our ancestry. We may think of ourselves as being from New England, Canada, France or India. We may (and likely do) have something more specific in mind such as  Mayflower descendants, Pennsylvania Quakers, Mormon pioneers, or Irish immigrants (say in the wake of the potato famine). Then when we start looking for evidence we tend to find what we are looking for. Confirmation bias occurs when we start out with a belief and then think see that  the evidence favors our belief, while overlooking evidence to the contrary. If we have a particular story in mind, it’s easy to go looking for evidence to back up that story, and this can create for us a skewed view of our heritage. In my case, I came across the name Bradford while researching something else and couldn’t help but be curious as to whether this was the same Bradford line we know from history. It turned out that the answer was yes, I am a descendant of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth and signer of the Mayflower compact. But trying to connect ourselves with famous people is just one of a number of genealogy pitfalls. It can be fun, and those people are part of our ancestry, But starting with a particular conclusion in mind and then trying to find evidence that will bear it out is not the right way to get a realistic picture of our ancestry. Worse, it can lead us to ignore important evidence, and come to conclusions that aren’t really accurate, or at least balanced.

Fortunately, changes in technology and the sheer number of records that are available online and indexed are leading to greater accuracy and coverage (the extent to which there are not gaps) in our family trees. Using just traditional methods, search tools, such as those at Ancestry.com will often provide us with extensive lists of potential matching records. It makes it harder to miss large branches of our family tree because we don’t know how to get started. To be sure, the potential matches need to be evaluated, we need to identify and document our sources, and identify multiple sources of evidence where possible, but it’s hard to overlook entire branches of our family tree when they’re staring us in the face on our computer screen. Another area in which technology tends to keep us from overlooking information we may not have been looking for is the use of DNA techniques in genealogical research. A funny thing about our DNA is that it’s not vulnerable to confirmation bias. We are going to find out whether our ancestors go back to Europe, Africa or are Native American (for example) whether we like it or not. Now, the amount of detailed information we end up finding depends on what is available for the DNA sequences to match, but general information on ethnicity (at least for some 4 or 5 generations) is pretty much unavoidable. What that information means to us is a different matter. And regardless of the methods we use to learn about our ancestors, what our newfound knowledge means to us is, well, pretty much up to us. Still, I can’t help but wonder if improved research methods and greater knowledge about our ancestors will tend to break down barriers, and we will end up feeling more connected to people we might not otherwise meet and, finally, that greater knowledge of who are ancestors are will tend to be positive influence. This won’t always be the case. Unfortunately, some people will only find their prejudices reinforced, but we can hope this will be the exception rather than the rule.

Of Icebergs and the Internet


The use of online databases and search tools in family history research has provoked a kind of backlash among more traditional genealogists. It is often said that the Internet is just the tip of the iceberg with real research taking place in libraries, family history centers and archives. And it really is true that only a fraction of the genealogical data available can be found online. That is changing, of course, more information becomes available online every day, and the amount of data available now was undreamed of a few years ago, but creating new digital repositories is no easy task, and it’s not free. So, for the foreseeable future, we should expect family history to involve working with microfilm, reference works, and even physical papers stored in libraries, churches and private collections.

But the value of digital libraries should not be underestimated, they really have revolutionized genealogical research. In part, I think, there is a kind of nostalgia for traditional methods and archives, and it is thoroughly understandable. But depending on whether you identify more strongly with the digital camp or the traditional camp, you may find yourself either exaggerating or understating both the sheer amount of information available in digital form and the relative comprehensiveness of that information. A bit of explanation is in order here: no matter how much data is available online, if the information you’re looking for is not available, it won’t matter (to you) how much information there is out there that you can download using just a web browser and an Internet connection. Comprehensiveness is the degree to which an archive or digital repository includes all of the data you might need, and not just certain resources, or data of a particular type. Right now, comprehensiveness is the Achilles heel of digital repositories. Sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself needing data that hasn’t been digitized and indexed or documents that haven’t been scanned or photographed. Sure, there will be plenty of data out there to keep you busy, but there will always be those questions that remain unanswered until you start digging into special collections at the library, or spend some time ordering and reviewing microfilm at your local family history center.

[Read more…]

Looking at place names

he clipper ship Cairngorm under full sailIf you’re like me, you want to know more about your ancestors than just when they lived and who their parents were. You want a picture of who they were, what was important to them, and what they hoped to accomplish in life. In other words, you want a picture of them as people. Unfortunately, vital records don’t necessarily tell you that much about your ancestors’ day to day lives, at least not directly. But they do offer you a number of clues, the most obvious of which is where they lived. If you know that a person lived in the Bronx (in New York) or London, rather than a fishing village in Scotland, or in rural Idaho, you already know quite a bit. Pay attention to the place names in your records and when your ancestors lived there. It’s easy to forget that places change over time, and what you think of when you see the words London, England may or may not match up well with the city in which you ancestor lived.

Fortunately, there are tools available that can help. I’ll use my second great grandfather John Woodhouse as an example. For some time, I thought he was born in Adwick Le Street, Yorkshire, England. He was christened there, and lived there for a time, but other records show that he was probably born in Campsall. What can we say about these places? After doing some Google  searches, the search key historic place names brought up A Vision of Britain Through Time, a web site I find tremendously useful, given that so many of my ancestors either came from Great Britain in the nineteenth century or later, or lived in colonial America. If your ancestors come from elsewhere, you will need to consult other resources. Don’t forget print publications and, of course, Wikipedia. You may not want to cite it as a primary source of information, but it’s a great place to start when what you want is general information, or an overview of a particular topic.

To return to John Woodhouse, I typed “Campsall” into the search box and found a map and some basic information about the township, including the following quote from John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-1872):

CAMPSALL, a township, a parish, and a subdistrict in Doncaster district, W. R. Yorkshire. The township adjoins the Doncaster and Wakefield railway, 1½ mile W of Askern station, and 7½ N by W of Doncaster; and includes the hamlet of Barnsdale. Acres, 1,470. Real property, £2,480. Pop., 349. Houses, 64. The parish contains also the townships of Askern, Norton, Fenwick, Moss, and part of Sutton; and its Post Town is Askern under Doncaster. Acres, 9,390. Real property, with the rest of Sutton, £14,816….

John Woodhouse did not live there in 1870, he left for the United States in 1851, but that is close enough in time to give a pretty good picture of where he lived. In addition, it explains why certain records list John Woodhouse’s place of birth a Doncaster and others do not. Even more, I’ve seen the name Chipping Norton associated with his father Charles Woodhouse. It turns out that there is a Norton in the district of Doncaster, too. Or at least that’s what I thought. Returning to the main page of A Vision of Britain and typing “chipping norton” into the search box, I found a rather different place, this time in Oxfordshire. Included was the following excerpt from John Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887):

Chipping Norton, mun. bor., township, and par. with ry. sta., NW. Oxfordshire, 12 miles SW. of Banbury and 89 miles NW. of London — par., 4872 ac., pop. 4607; township and bor., pop. 4167; P.O., T.O., 2 Banks, 1 newspaper. Market-day, WednesdayChipping Norton Junction, ry. sta., is 5 miles SW. of Chipping Norton.

A much bigger, and different, place! With a railway station and two banks, it is quite likely that Chipping Norton had an industrial base, and may have been a good place to seek employment. Of course, we should not neglect the possibility of error here. It is possible that someone mistakenly wrote down Chipping Norton when, in fact, they should have simply written Norton. This is something I need to investigate further. As a general rule, if your source of information is a secondary or tertiary source such as a census, this type of error is more likely, particularly if the record was made in the United States by someone unfamiliar with the geography of Britain. But it’s not impossible, Charles Woodhouse and his son were both tailors, and it is entirely possible that they may have sought work in a larger town. Incidentally, I know he was a tailor because he was recorded as such on the ship’s register when they emigrated to the United States. Almost all of us here in the States have ancestors that came here from somewhere else, and if they came by ship, you may be able to find the ship’s register. This may not be the most obvious source of information such as occupation but, when you think about it, a journey by sea is was not a small undertaking, and knowing who on board is tailor or an ironsmith or a doctor could be very useful. As it happens, John Woodhouse records in his journal that he earned extra money by doing tailoring work for the officers, which is good because the journey cost him most of what he had.

This is all well and good, but how do you go about finding place names in the first place? Vital records such as birth and death certificates will often tell you where people lived when they were born and when they died. If you cannot find them (or if they aren’t available), you can often look at parish registries, particularly for baptism or christening dates and locations. How easily you can find records like this depends on when and where your ancestors lived. For example, vital records were maintained in New England back into colonial times, so if you have roots in New England, you are fortunate. In other states, the systematic maintenance of birth and death certificates didn’t come until later (the exact time varying from state to state). If your ancestors lived in another country, then parish records or other types of records may be available (and they may or may not be online). Another thing to keep in mind is that different religious groups have different traditions regarding maintaining records. One that may not be obvious is that Quaker meetings maintain minutes, often in considerable detail, and scanned images of these records are starting to become available online. I actually did not know I had Quaker ancestors until searches at Ancestry.com started to turn up Quaker meeting minutes, so don’t assume that you have no Quaker ancestors simply because you don’t know about it. Probably the religious group in America most famous for maintaining records is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church. If you haven’t looked at FamilySearch.org, you should It is the genealogy site created by the LDS (or Mormon) church, and you don’t need to belong to the church to get an account. If you have Mormon ancestors, you’ll definitely want to look at this resource, and if you don’t it’s still worth a look. That being said, I should note that documentation on this site is not always what it could be, and alternative data is not always recorded when it should be, so you’ll want to check your sources. This is really true of any source of compiled information.

Okay, that’s birth and death. What about the time in between? If your ancestors lived at a place and time where census records were maintained, you’re in luck. Census records will  tell you where your ancestors lived when the census was taken, typically every ten years. You may find that they stayed in the same place year after year, or that they moved more frequently. A word of warning, though: vital dates recorded in a census are often based on memory, perhaps well after the fact, so you should look for better information sources such as birth certificates, parish registries, family bibles for the same information. But if you want to know where your ancestors lived and when they moved from one place to another, census records can be very useful. Finally, there are deeds and land grants. Any time someone acquires land, whether through purchase, inheritance or other means such as land bounty, there will be a record. And because land is so valuable, these records tend to be very reliable and less error prone than, say census records.

Can it really be that easy?

If you’re like me, you have watched commercials for Ancestry.com with considerable skepticism. After all, genealogy is supposed to be hard work, involving countless hours digging through library stacks and perusing microfilms. On television, on the other hand, we see people entering only as small amount of information and then seeing a leaf appear indicating that a clue to further information is available. Can it really be that easy? I thought the obvious answer was that it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. So, for the longest time, I just ignored these commercials and didn’t even consider trying it. Well, of course, family history research is not easy, it can be hard work, it can be frustrating. But I eventually decided to try it out and was surprised at how fast I was provided with information about my ancestors. Now, it really isn’t my intention to make this into a testimonial, but suffice it to say that I now use Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com as one of primary research tools. Now, to be fair, I’m part of a Mormon family that goes back to pioneer days, and have many ancestors from Colonial America (one sort of implies the other), so there are a lot of people who have been looking into my ancestors’ family lines for years. So, it might be argued that I’m not a very good test case, of course the information will be out there for the taking, and of course a family tree on Ancestry.com will only grow, and grow quickly.

But is that really right? First of all, we should note that data in the form of pedigree charts, family records and published genealogies are out there, but how much information does that raw data really provide us with? Data can be thought of as a collection of statements, the source and reliability of which may or may not be known. Of course, data comes from somewhere and designers of repositories of data known as databases are usually careful to record the source of the recorded data, and this information (known to database professionals as metadata) can be very valuable to us as we analyze the data and try to  glean useful information from it. Okay, that’s a lot of terminology. Let’s break it down. First off, data is pretty much anything that can be written down. It can be unstructured (like a journal) or structured (like a list of names and birth dates in a parish registry). What we know about information is called metadata (or “data about data”). Before I go on, I should make it clear that this terminology is taken from information science, not genealogy. So, if you get funny looks from other researchers if you ask about metadata, you’ll know why. That’s actually not quite the whole story: metadata is generally systematic recording such things as authorship, language, time recorded and so forth. One thing that metadata is not, though, is evaluation or even interpretation. A document may list  3 Jan 1840 as the birthdate of Mary Williams, but how confident are we? This is a bit of a digression, but if the information source is a birth certificate, we can be fairly confident, but if it’s a death certificate, it has to come from some other source. The type of document from which we get our data is yet another issue to consider when interpreting that data. As an aside, I’ll note that it’s not uncommon to see the date of birth and christening date for a person to be listed as the very same day? How likely is that? It is certainly possible, but is certainly not expected. If the date doesn’t come from a primary source it is possible that, somewhere along the way, someone needed a birthdate but the only information they had was the date of christening. We also need to consider the cultural context. Was the christening considered the more important event? Was it more important to record that information correctly or the date of birth? The point is that there is a necessary analysis phase that may be described as trying to ascertain what the available data is telling us. At this point, the question isn’t whether it’s true or false, but simply what it means. When we have performed this task, the analyzed data becomes information.

But to return to the topic of online genealogical research, we’re likely to find ourselves confronted with a wealth of often conflicting information (at this point, I’ll stop being pedantic about the distinction between the two). My genealogical database is full of alternative dates and places for what should be a single event, and I imagine yours is, too. Of course, we work hard to resolve these discrepancies, but that’s not always easy. This is why a technology can seem to give us a lot of answers very quickly, but then we find out that we’re not as sure of the information in our charts (or electronic databases). Does that mean that online search tools and social media just give us a false sense of knowledge, leading us to believe things that have yet to be proven? It would be easy for a cynic to take this position, but I think it is a mistake. The Internet is a powerful tool, and can be extremely helpful to us as we dig into our family history. It’s not a panacea, though, and we have to be critical of the information we’re able to find using search tools. We just need to do the work of evaluating, cross-referencing and verifying that information. This isn’t really so different from genealogy in the pre-Internet days. The difference is that instead of getting our raw data from microfilm or microfiche, we are likely to get it from a web-based tool. The amount of time we spend performing these various tasks may change, but the tasks themselves do not. Modern technology really can help us to find information more quickly, but we do need to be careful and methodical in our analysis if we want to avoid mistakes.