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Sourcing on Ancestry.com

Entering information directly onto Ancestry.com is often frustrating with the occasional stab of fright. While the site does offer unprecedented access to millions of transcribed records, the way it handles that information is unpredictable and sometimes scary. For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to address the misapplication of Marriage and Marriage License dates (bugs me), Birth and Baptism dates (really bugs me), and the site’s inexplicable desire to create multiple instances of the same marriage within the same record (really, really bugs me). Today, I just want to talk about sourcing. Sources, for the uninitiated, are the blocks upon which family history projects are built. Without good, reliable, detailed, and verifiable sources, all you have is a jumble of names and dates that may or may not be true. Ancestry.com is brimming with these “junk trees”, Frankenstein-like projects cobbled together from the parts of other trees. The site makes it easy to import information from others’ trees regardless of whether they’re supported by good research. These unsourced projects are like Red Light Districts. They’re interesting to look at, but if you get too close you’re going to catch something. Which brings me back to sourcing, the cornerstone of building a vibrant, disease-free tree.

Given that the site prides itself on providing original (i.e., scanned) sources, you would think they would hold the information gleaned from those sources as inviolate. They do not. Each individual’s profile page has a “Edit this person” button. That opens a tabbed page with options for Vital Information, Facts & Events, Relationship Events, Relationships, and Notes. For the purposes of this article, I will be addressing the Name, Birth, and Death facts. There is no point in talking about Marriage facts, because you’re only allowed to have one date, place, and description for a given marriage, even if you’ve found multiple sources for that event. The problems with Name, Birth, and Death sourcing are identical. If you choose “Preferred” for one of these, not only will it overwrite your existing information, but consequently your original source will then be attributed to the updated information. Clear? No? Let me give you an example. Let’s say in an interview with your grandmother she indicated that your uncle’s name was “Joe Bob Smith”. In Ancestry, you can create a source called “Interview: Grandma Smith” and attach that source to your uncle’s name. Later, you find him listed in the Social Security Death Index, but he’s named “Joseph Robert Smith”. Thinking that you’d rather use his full name, you select “Preferred” (instead of “Alternate”) and click OK. Everything good? Not quite. If you click on “Edit this person” and then “More Options…” (to the right of the name fields) you’ll find there are no alternate names, and both the “Social Security Death Index” and “Interview: Grandma Smith” are both attributed to his full name. What did Grandma used to call him? If you don’t have it written down somewhere, it’s gone, because Ancestry assumes that “Preferred” means you don’t care about the other version. That, to me, is scary. I don’t want a research tool that erases my research. A name or date that might not seem important or correct now, might be both.

To confuse matters, if you do have a person with name variations, you can click on “More Options…” and “Make this the preferred name”. This option does not overwrite anything. For this reason, users should ALWAYS use the “Alternate” option when entering new data (e.g., Name, Birth, Death) rather than “Preferred”. It might also be helpful to create an unsourced alternate name, birth, and death fact that incorporates elements from multiple source citations. I guess that’s my take-home message. Remember to use the “Alternate” option, always. You can make it preferred later.

Snapshot

I’ve had this idea for a while now, but wasn’t sure how I should present it. The idea was to take a snapshot of my research status, broken out into each of the major surnames of my family tree. I limited the snapshot to great great grandparents, to keep the linked spreadsheet from ballooning in size. The result looks quite a bit different than I was expecting (which is why we do these things in the first place). Each column represents one surname. Each surname column is divided into three sections (let’s call them drums). Blue drums indicate the number of generations from myself to the first appearance of that surname. Red drums indicate the number of direct ancestors with a given surname that for whom I have research that supports their place in the tree. Green drums indicate the number of direct ancestors with a given surname for whom I have no sources (other than others’ assurances).

Snapshot: March 2014

Snapshot: March 2014

I hope to revisit this chart every year or so and update it with new findings. That being said, don’t expect the height of the red drums to change any time soon. Hopefully, I won’t lose the spreadsheet between now and next time the chart needs updating. :(

Looking for Baileys

I am currently for searching tombstones belonging to my 3rd great grand father, Jacob Bailey and his wife Barbara Ann Tracey. I know that they lived in the Parkton and Wiseburg areas of Baltimore county, Maryland where Jacob was a stone mason. Jacob’s death is mentioned in the 1870 census with a small notation that reads “died this day”. That page of the census was enumerated on 21 Jul 1870. His wife is believed to have died the year before. Jacob and Barbara had a large family with at least nine children, e.g., John Thomas, Warnel, Mary Catherine, Anna E., Jane, Mariam, William, Adam Isaiah, and Dora. Finding any of their children’s families would be helpful as well.

This Saturday, I dragged my family to yet another cemetery. We stopped at the Wiseburg United Methodist Church in White Hall and combed through the rows looking for Baileys. It didn’t take long to find Bailey stones, but it soon became apparent that either a) Jacob and Barbara weren’t there, or b) their stones weren’t there. Instead, I found the family of Adam Isaiah, his wife Annie, and their children. Most of these stones had already been cataloged on Find-A-Grave, but you can never be sure how thorough other volunteers might have been. There was no one in the office the day we stopped by. I may have to visit during the week if I’m going to have a chance of looking at the church records.

Next, we will be visiting other cemeteries in the area.

Westmoreland County

This past weekend, my father and I took a trip to Western Pennsylvania. We planned to do this years ago, but for one reason or another the stars never aligned. This year we finally made it happen, and I’m glad we did. The Boddices emigrated from England at the end of 19th century and settled along the steep mountainsides that line the Monogahela River. While in the area, we stayed with my father’s cousin George Burgman and his wife Betty. George is the grandson of the immigrant, John Boddice, through the second marriage of his daughter, Jennie. On the first evening, while talking family history with him and his wife, George let slip that there was a Boddice family Bible. He explained that he’d looked through it years before and that there wasn’t much inside. After some digging through the attic, he brought down a thick volume with a badly degraded spine and plopped it on the table. I carefully opened the book and could feel the cover and spine slowly disintegrating in my hands. As George had mentioned, there was nothing in the front of the book, but that’s not where genealogy notes are kept in Family Bibles. At the book’s center were two complete pages detailing births and deaths of the immigrant family dating from 1872 to 1913. It was our first evening in Westmoreland county and the trip was already a success! I spent the evening scanning the Bible, photos, and funeral cards.

Detail from Family Bible

Detail from Family Bible

The next day we drove to Monessen and visited Grandview Cemetery. The cemetery sits atop a high ridge overlooking the river valley. It didn’t take long to locate John and Lillian’s graves based on a photo I’d found online. Curiously, there was a lot of empty ground around their headstone and we wanted to know who was buried near them, if anyone. The cemetery office was closed, so we left a message and decided to return later in the day. George led us back into the town and showed us the house where George and Lillian had lived, the locations of bars that they used to frequent, and the steep roads and staircases they used to climb the mountainside. After touring the town we returned to Grandview and found the caretaker’s son near the office. The young man took us inside and pulled a small pile of burial cards which I transcribed. The caretaker showed-up soon afterward and pointed us toward the necessary sections. At the day’s end, we returned to Dravosburg, for one last night.

On our final day, I explained that I wanted to visit the grave of another 2nd great grandfather, that was no relation to George. Luther Rambo Mack was buried in Monongahela Cemetery near Charleroi. I had no idea where that was in relation to Dravosburg, but we ended-up traveling back up-river (along the opposite bank) the same as the day before. The entrance to Monongahela Cemetery was beautiful. Tall old trees cast shadows across deep green slopes with a simple road winding up into the woods. We quickly found the cemetery office and then spent the next 10 minutes trying to orient ourselves among the labyrinthine paths and roads that criss-crossed the grounds. It was easily one of the best kept non-military cemeteries I have ever visited. At the top of the ridge, in a more sparsely treed area, we found the stone for Luther, Annie, and their immediate families. I took all the photos that I could, and some extras for Find-A-Grave, and called it a weekend.

Thanks again George and Betty!

Lost and Found

My Uncle Albert started doing genealogy on my maternal lines long before me. When asked, he would bring out a book of names, dates, and photographs and let me look (carefully!) through the pages. There was one picture that always stood out to me, that of a dapper looking young man in a long coat, hat,  gloves, and holding a clarinet. The story behind the photograph was that Clarence (my great granduncle) left Pennsylvania to seek out his fortunes in the West but was never heard from again. This would have been around 1910. Sometime later, I also learned that Clarence had borrowed money from family members before disappearing. Nobody could tell me what happened to him; most of my surviving family didn’t even remember him. Once I started doing my own research, I was determined to learn what happened. As of today, I have finally succeeded! Sadly, everyone that might have cared or been interested, has passed on. Since I can no longer tell my uncle, grandfather, grandaunt, or second cousin 2x removed… I’ll share the mystery of Clarence Channell with you.

Years later, I found Clarence in the 1930 Federal Census, sitting in the Colorado State Penitentiary. There was no data indicating why he was there; his name was accompanied only by the relation “Inmate”. After some searching, I discovered that the  Colorado State Archives has extensive prison records. Indexes of these records are available online. After some quick searches, I found a number of hits: Clarence Channell #9694 (1915), G. C. Channell #11163 (1921), G. C. Channell #15192 (1929), and G. C. Channell #17246 (1932).  I couldn’t be 100% sure that each of these belonged to my great granduncle, but my curiosity was piqued. This year, for Christmas, I decided to give myself a gift of uncovering Clarence’s story. According to the Social Security Death Index, he died in 1966, so it’s not like he would care. I submitted my request online and talked to one of the archivists on the phone about what I wanted. One credit card transaction and a week later, I now have a much better idea what happened to Clarence Channell. There may be court and police records that give more insight into his crimes, but the paperwork I have paint a fairly good picture, Great Granduncle Clarence was a grifter.

George Clarence Channell, 1915

On August 23, 1915, Clarence was convicted for “Forgery” in Boulder County, Colorado. He was sentenced to one to two years. He was paroled on July 24, 1916 and discharged May 14, 1917. On January 20, 1921, Clarence was convicted for “False pretense” in Larimer County, Colorado. He was sentenced to eight to ten years. He was paroled on January 10, 1925 and discharged January 14, 1925. Governor Sweet commuted his sentence from six years to ten years after a violation of parole in May 1926. On July 18, 1929, Clarence was convicted of “Con” in Grand County, Colorado. He was sentenced to three years and discharged on November 12, 1932. Finally, Clarence was convicted for “False Pretenses and Confidence Game” on October 18, 1932 in Denver County, Colorado (possibly while on parole). He was sentenced six to ten years. He was paroled on July 18, 1935, returned for parole violation on January 1, 1936, and finally discharged on May 5, 1937 after Governor Johnson revoked his parole. After 1937, Clarence’s name pops-up at the Denver Superior Court. In November 1960, a Writ of Error, i.e. appeal, was dismissed due to a failure to prosecute.

Somewhere beneath all these dates lay some very interesting stories. I guess the lesson here is not to trust men bearing clarinets.

Find A Grave

A couple months ago I registered at Find A Grave. I have a large number of photos and transcriptions that I’ve compiled over the years that would be more useful on a public website than in my private database. Find A Grave has been around since 1998, almost as long as THIS website! :) I’ve visited Find A Grave a few times in the past, found it less useful than I was hoping, and continued on my way to other resources. Sadly, I missed an opportunity to share the information I had. In the meantime, thousands of other volunteers have been creating and managing memorials in my absence. Late to the game, I’m now trying to squeeze my way into the project and create or enhance my family’s memorials. What I’m discovering is that there are large gaps in my family tree where I have no idea where my ancestors are buried. What I’ve also discovered is that there are people who transcribe massive amounts of graves (100s of 1,000s), add them to the database, and then have no time to address the management (e.g., corrections, links, photos) of every grave they’ve contributed. You can submit a request for a memorial transfer, but that’s up to the person who created the record in the first place. This is more than a little frustrating when you have information to add. One of the best things about the project is that it’s an easy (and free) way to find other researchers. Now I just have to find some free time to start walking cemeteries again.

In Search of Florence

I made a breakthrough today thanks to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.  I first discovered Florence L. Boddice (my grandaunt) in early 1900 census data that placed her at the Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (yeah, they’ve changed the name). In 1996, my grandaunt Aggie told me that Florence was deaf, but not from birth.  She also said that Florence played the piano beautifully even after her hearing loss. Florence’s name came up again this past August while speaking with a cousin. He showed me a large photo of the Boddice family taken on Christmas 1932. I asked why Florence was missing and he explained that she died before that date. Wanting to know more about her, I e-mailed the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and asked whether they had any records. I didn’t really expect a response, but respond they did! They initially told me that their old records were spotty, but that they would look just the same. Today, they responded with more information than I had hoped for! It appears that Florence is listed on an early registration log as the 862nd student of the school. It also states that she became deaf as a result of measles when she was 9 years old, that she enrolled in the school in 1907, and graduated in 1920.  What happened to her between graduation and Christmas 1932 is still unknown.

Tackling Census Data in TMG

I mentioned earlier that I’m experimenting with the GRAMPS family tree software. I’m still waffling on whether to make that switch. Adopting another application would be nothing short of life-changing. I have no idea how much time I’ve invested into TMG, but it could probably be measured in the 1,000s of hours. Any move to another application would almost certainly mean that some of that data would be lost. I probably wouldn’t lose names, dates, and relationships, but would probably lose a great deal of painstakingly recorded sources. So, while I weigh which way to go, I continue to enter data and learn about TMG.

Today, I experimented with recording and reporting census data. To date, I’ve been using tags for each individual, i.e., if John Stanley appeared in the 1880 census, I would give him a “Cen 1880” tag. I would also include the date and place of enumeration, dwelling and family numbers, his age, birthplace, and occupation. If he had six people in his household, each person that was enumerated with him would also get a “Cen 1880” tag. Though inelegant, I liked being able to see (at a glance) if a given individual was missing the census tag for a given year. The problem with this method is that the structure of each household is lost. This has bugged me for sometime but I didn’t know what to do about it. I have used thousands of census tags, and am not about to go back through the database and change everything. Today, I found a solution.

The first thing I did was look at how other TMG users handle census data. The program is very customizable and there’s no one right way to handle censuses. A number of published solutions (here, here, and here) suggest establishing one census tag per household and attaching all other members as witnesses to the Principal. I’ve known about this solution for years but never implemented it because I didn’t like a bunch of undifferentiated Witness tags floating around. After clicking around the Master Tag Type List, I discovered that within a given tag’s properties (Tools > Master Tag Type List > Cen 1880 > Edit) there’s an option (in the Other tab) to use the tag’s original title, rather than Witness (Display Witnessed Tags / Using the Label Above). Now, even the witnesses to the primary “Cen 1880” tag have the same apparent tag. Squee!

Attaching people to the Principal as Witnesses recreates the census households, it does not however give a sense for the household’s structure. For that, I created dozens of roles for each census tag. Within the “Cen 1880” tag, I currently have the following roles: Head, Wife, Dau01, Dau02 thru Dau10, Son01, Son02 thru Son10, and Boarder. I can add more as needed, e.g. Mother-in-Law, Grandmother. Each of these roles has a sentence associated with it. Dau02 for instance, has: “[RG:Dau02]<,  aged [WM],> appears in the 1880 Federal Census <at [L]> as the daughter of [P].” Since the roles are gender specific, there’s no need to create a Female Sentence Structure under the Tag Type Definition. When adding Dau02 as a witness, I now enter her census given age (whether it’s correct or not) in the Edit Witness / Memo field. That supplies the [WM] variable with the age required. Earlier censuses that do not list relationships include sentences like: “[RG:Enum02]<, aged [WM],> appears in the 1870 Federal Census <at [L]> in the household of [P].” Other than this, the sentences do not vary much between censuses, so I used cut-and-paste liberally when building roles.

So, why create a Head role instead of just using Principal? In my original implementation of census tags, every person that appeared in a census had a Principal role. In my new system, the Head role has the following sentence: “[P] appears as head of household in the 1880 Federal Census <on [D]> <at [L]>.” By leaving the Principal role intact, I do not have to go back through all my old census tags and adjust everyone’s role to fit the new system. The old sentences remain unchanged. When entering new families however, I can select their appropriate roles. The system requires a lot of upfront work creating roles and sentences, but I think the result is much cleaner. Anyway, that’s how I’m entering census data now. I hope this write-up helps someone! As always, feel free to e-mail me with questions and/or ridicule.

Christmas 1932

I have probably made more family tree progress in the last week or two, than I have in the last few years. Sadly, most of this hasn’t involved any real research (free time eludes me). On the positive side, I have managed to find an hour here and there to scan and begin cataloging hundreds of old photographs from my wife’s family, and few from my own. I spent this past Monday afternoon scanning 80 year old photos that I didn’t even know existed before this week. The photos should allow me to expand the Boddice pages of this site, which is great because I have so very little from that branch. The originals are owned by a 76-year old first cousin twice removed, who was able to identify 28 out of 30 people in a group photo taken on Christmas 1932. Very, very cool. Hopefully, I’ll be able to set-up some more scanning sessions with relatives in the nearby area sometime soon…

TMG vs GRAMPS

Like most contemporary family tree historians, I use genealogical software to help me with my research. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to organize the tens of thousands of data-bits that constitute my family tree. My first solution was an MS-DOS program called Brothers Keeper. That was a good solution until my database reached several hundred people. From there I moved to The Master Genealogist (TMG), and my database grew to almost 20,000 people. My current dilemma is that TMG hasn’t kept pace with my research needs. For one, it only works on Windows (I prefer the Ubuntu Linux and Mac OSes). Secondly, it doesn’t support Unicode characters, because the designers seem locked into an outdated (and unsupported) MS-FoxPro architecture. The TMG designers frown on people even mentioning the Unicode problem on their forums. While migrating is a scary proposition (e.g., what will happen to my: thousands of sources, customized tags, flags, roles, and sentences), the alternative isn’t much better, i.e., cling to an outdated system and the Microsoft OS *shudder*. I’m currently looking at GRAMPS, a cross-platform open source family tree solution that looks like a good candidate. It has a good deal of online community support. I’ve played with it some, but there’s an entry level learning curve that I’m butting my head against. Maybe I should read the manual? If anyone has any other ideas for software, drop me a line! Thanks.