Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Genealogies can be more than Social Constructs

I've just become aware of what sounds like an interesting book: Eviatar Zerubavel, Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community. A Boston Globe review states that the Rutger sociologist "pulls back the curtain on the genealogical obsession."

I haven't seen the book, so I don't know how accurate the reviewer's description is. According to the review, Zerubavel objects that genealogists create pleasing genealogies by choosing which ancestral lines to follow (and which to ignore)and by cutting and pasting from other similarly biased genealogies. As anyone who has read Greenwood, Akenson,or Mills, or who has attended IGHR or studied the Genealogical Proof Standard knows, the curtain was pulled back a long time ago.

Yes, it is easy to produce biased and family histories. We do choose which ancestors to follow. Historians, sociologists and other researchers also choose where to focus their attention. A degree of bias is unavoidable, but an effort at neutrality is possible. This is why we promote standards and train genealogists to be disciplined researchers and analysts.

Finally, according to the review, Zerubavel asks: do we really care about our distant ancestors? No, not in the same way that we care about our living siblings and parents. But, we can find our ancestors very interesting. Do historians really care about the Roman Empire? I don't know, but I would bet they find it interesting, and that they believe that studying and understanding it has some value for us today.

Don't feel guilty about your obsession with genealogy!

Thanks to Harold Henderson for making me aware of this book. Harold's comment on Christy Fillerup's Facebook post led me to the Boston Globe review. Now, I need to lay my hands on a copy of Zerubavel's book.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Genealogy and Science

From time to time, an interesting discussion erupts on genealogy mail lists about whether genealogy is a “science.” This is a tough question, and I think I am fully capable of oversimplifying it. It is also a good question, but, I think, the wrong question.

For starters, genealogy is indeed non-fiction. At least, its aims to be. Genealogists aim to ascertain chains of kinship, whether forward or backward in time. We do this by determining parent-child relationships. Hezekiah either was or wasn’t your ancestor.

That said, proof is often difficult. No matter how diligently we adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard, we often can not state our conclusions with total certainty. DNA evidence can enhance our confidence, but we often must qualify our conclusions with words like “almost certainly,” “probably,” or “possibly.”

“Science” is commonly defined to involve observation, experimental investigation, testing of hypotheses and development of laws about the behavior of natural phenomena. When we think of science, we typically think of the physical sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. But, broadly defined, the phrase “natural phenomena” can be extended to humans, and thus we sometimes talk of “social sciences” – sociology, psychology, political science, etc.

Most people don’t consider genealogy a science. Perhaps the most important reason is that genealogy is not experimental and is not concerned with establishing scientific laws – that is generalizations about relationships among phenomena that hold true under specified conditions (paraphrased from the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition). History comes a bit closer to the extent that historians try to understand patterns in social, political or economic events, but the subject matter is so complex and the conditions so varied that historians find it hard to conclude that if A happens, B will follow.

So, genealogy is not a science. Who cares? For me, the more interesting question is: how do genealogical research methods compare to scientific method. Genealogists don’t run experiments in the same way scientists do, but they do observe data, develop hypotheses and draw conclusions. Many of the same rules of logic apply.

A famous philosopher of science (yes, there is such a thing), Karl Popper, said that a theory can not be scientific unless it is falsifiable. The basic idea is that, because it is so difficult to prove many things with certainty, we can approach truth by proving alternative theories false. Scientists posit a “null hypothesis,” and then set out to disprove it. If evidence suggests rejection of a null hypothesis, then the theory can be accepted with some confidence. For example, if a researcher hypothesized that all sheep are white, but null hypothesis would be that some sheep are not white. Because a researcher can never be certain that he has observed all sheep in the world, he can never prove that all sheep are white. That is, the all are white theory is not falsifiable. However, a null hypothesis that all sheep are not white can be proved with a single observation.

This principle applies to genealogy. Our research might lead us to hypothesize that the Hezekiah Hercules of was the father of Herky Hercules. We may never be able to prove the relationship, but we might be able to disprove it. If we can reject a series of hypothesized relationships, we may be left with only one plausible relationship standing.

Another principle of science is that of conceptual economy – that is, a preference for the simplest explanation among a set of competing theories with comparable explanatory power. Any particular theory may eventually be rejected, but this principle advises not making explanations more complicated than they need be. This problem arises often in genealogy. Many possible explanations, some of them Rube-Goldberg-complicated, may be available to explain why Great-Grandma Grace lived with her Aunt Alicia, but don’t dream up more complicated explanations than necessary. Unless you can disprove the simple explanation, it likely is true.

So, no, genealogy is not a science. But both scientists and genealogists make careful observations, develop theories about relationships, and draw defensible conclusions. This is what matters: skilled genealogists do their research with much the same care as scientists. I think we should worry less about whether we are a science, and more about how we do our research and write our proof arguments.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Braided Migration: Fawkners and Low Dutch

When I teach about migration, I like to compare migration streams to braided streams. Most maps of migration routes show generalized migration streams along major routes. These maps give us an idea of the major flows, but don't tell us much about individual families.

The reality is that individual families, while following the general flow, often diverted from these major routes. They wandered off the main flow, but still moved "downstream" in the same general direction, often returning to the main stream further on -- much like a river spread outs into several smaller streams that diverge and converge in a flood plain. If you are having trouble visualizing this, you might want to look at an aerial photograph of a braided stream -- you will find many on Google Images.

One of my favorite migration stories involves a New York Dutch community that spread to southeastern Pennsylvania, and then transplanted itself from Conewego, Pennsylvnia, to Kentucky around 1780. (You can read about the Kentucky Low Dutch at www.sweet-home-spun.com/historytrust.htm). The Low Dutch community held together in Kentucky for several decades before the lure of western lands pulled many families away. A sizable contingent moved northwest into Indiana.

Hendricks County, Indiana, is where I picked up the trail of John C. Fawkner. He died there in 1839, leaving behind his wife Ann Faulconer and her five children, including James C. Fawkner, who will reappear shortly. All was well, until a reading of John's probate revealed apparent heirs from earlier marriages, including a son named Cornelius.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I was able to establish that John C. Fawkner married Ida Cozine in 1817 in Mercer County, Kentucky. Ida's father was Cornelius Cozine of the Low Dutch community. (A more complete account of this story will hopefully appear in print later this year).

Hendrick County court records included an 1846 indenture in which Cornelius Fawkner of Lee County, Iowa, released his claim to his father's land in Indiana. In short order, I found Cornelius in the Mississippi River town of Montrose, where he lived with the William Owens family in 1850. I always look a few pages forward and backward in the census, and in this case, I found a William Dorland family two pages earlier. I knew that the Kentucky Low Dutch included Dorlands, and wondered what was going on. I surmised that Cornelius was somehow acquainted with the Dorlands through the Low Dutch. Another researcher threw cold water on the idea, noting that Cornelius Fawkner was born in Indiana and the Dorlands in New York. I'm still not sure who the Dorlands were; I think they might have been the William Dorland, aged 50-60, with an apparent wife aged 40-50, living in King's County (Brooklyn), New York, in 1840.

But, I knew something the other researcher didn't know: Cornelius was born in Kentucky, almost certainly to John C. Fawkner and Ida Cozine. I also knew he was a half-brother of James C. Fawkner, who showed up in the same small Iowa town in 1856. Living where? Next door to the same William Owens family that Cornelius lived with.

Was this mere coincidence or something more? I started to think "more" when I noticed John Vanarsdal, his wife Mary, and an apparent widow Ann Vanarsdal, as well as the David Westerfield family living in Montrose in 1856. The Vanarsdals and Westerfields were also from the Kentucky Low Dutch community. Also in Montrose in 1856 was the Henry Vanarsdale family from Ohio. As I was writing this blog, I received an email from Low Dutch researcher Carolyn Leonard noting that some Conewego Low Dutch families opted out of the Kentucky migration and instead went to Warren, Preble and Butler Counties in Ohio. In fact, the Henry Vanarsdale family was in Preble County, Ohio, in 1850.

Despite their variant migration paths, I have little doubt that these families were all connected in some way. I know a few things: John Vanarsdal's wife Mary was a Westerfield; her sister Ann (the Montrose widow) married, first, Peter Vanarsdal, and second, Isaac Vanarsdal; and their father was James Cozine Westerfield. They all were of the Mercer County Low Dutch. They surely knew, or were related to, Ida Cozine's family.

I have not been able to unravel the whole story, but I have a hypothesis. Ida Cozine won a divorce from John C. Fawkner in 1826. From trial testimony, I know she had two young children, but I don't know what happened to Ida or the children after the divorce. Ida might have remarried, or died young; another Low Dutch family might have taken her children in. Ida's brother married Phebe Vanarsdal. Based on all this, I suspect Cornelius Fawkner went to Montrose because families close to his mother Ida were there. He may have been related to the Dorlands, Vanarsdals, or Westerfields, but I don't yet know how.

I'm not sure what path the Dorlands took from New York to Iowa, but the odds of them accidentally landing in the same small Mississippi River town as Cornelius Fawkner, the Vanarsdals, and the Westerfields are too rare for it to be mere coincidence. As good genealogists, we know that coincidence is not sufficient proof of association or relationship, but in this case, the explanation probably lies in something more than chance. I think we have a migration resembling a braided stream.

Note: This essay is not intended as a genealogical report meeting citation and proof standards of the profession. Researchers interested in sources for this essay are invited to contact the author.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hester, Lester or Sister?

Sometimes even good handwriting is hard to read. If you have access to Ancestry.com, take a look at the 1860 U.S. Census enumeration of the Jacob M. Miller family of Buchanan County, Iowa (Liberty Township, p. 28, dwelling 196, family 188). Jacob and Ann Miller had a 14-year old Ohio-born apparent daughter. Other apparent children included 11 year-old John S. and 9-year-old Hamilton. The enumerator's handwriting was very clean and the quality of the digital image was unusually good, but the child's name presented a puzzle. A first glance, the 14-year old's name appeared to be Lester -- unusual for a girl.

What was going on here? Students in the Minnesota Genealogical Society's Beginning Genealogy class and their instructors (Lois Mackin, David Suddarth and John Schade) set out to solve the problem. The instructors suggested looking up and down the page to see if we could find the same capital letter used at the beginning of a recognizable name.

So, that's what we did. One person thought the name might be Hester, but we abandoned that idea when we noticed the "H" at the beginning of Hamilton's name was formed entirely differently. Perhaps, the name was Lester, but the first letter of the name was clearly different from the L's at the beginning of names Lucinda and Laura further down the same page. Another person was sure the first letter was an "S"and the name was "Sister." Alas, the first letter of Susanna and and Sara elsewhere on the page were formed differently.

We realized that we needed to confirm the name from another source. A 14-year old child should have been about four years old in 1850, so we searched for John and Ann Miller in Ohio in the 1850 U.S. Census. There, in Plain Township, Wayned County was Jacob and Ann Miller, with a 4-year old daughter Celeste and an infant, Hamilton. Apparently, the first letter of the 1860 name was an "L," but we will never know for sure why the name was recorded that way. Perhaps, the family called called Celeste "Leste" for short, and the census-taker thought he heard "Lester."

This short exercise points up two things. First, although most writers form their letters in a consistent manner, some people don't. Second, it always pays to look at a second source. Happy ancestor hunting to all!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning from Peers

One of the best ways to sharpen your genealogical knowledge is to ask questions, and among the best places to ask questions are the public and member-only lists of the Association of Professional Genealogists. APG is a professional association of more than 2,000 practicing or aspiring professional genealogists. Imagine the combined experience and knowledge of such a group!

Experienced researchers know the importance of understanding the cultural and legal context in which records were created. One of the challenges of genealogical research is that our ancestors did not sit still in time or place. One family I am tracking leads me back through Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky to 18th-century Virginia. Other branches take me back to 18th-century England, Scandinavia and The Netherlands. I can't possibly be expert in the history and culture of all these areas, so I must learn from others who are more expert.

Earlier this month (March 2011), I needed to know more about two things I was encountering in Kentucky records from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The first question dealt with abbreviations of given names. I found a name abbreviated "Jo." in an estate record. I was hopeful that "Jo." stood for John, which is often abbreviated "Jno." But, I knew "Jo." might also represent Joseph, which is more commonly abbreviated "Jos." To make a long story shorter, colleagues on the APG lists weighed in, offering examples of cases were "Jo." did appear to stand for John in records from that time period and earlier. Alas, despite examples of "Jo." standing for John, I have determined that, in the record I was looking at, it stands for Joseph.

My second question had to do with Kentucky tax records. I have found numerous cases where tax records for a particular county listed property located several counties distant. One bit of advice from the APG list-readers was: read the law. I did, and learned that Kentucky statutes explicity permitted taxpayers to list their property from several counties with the authorities in the county where they lived.

Because of the help of more knowledgeable genealogists, I am now a little smarter about Kentucky research. My advice: join APG and follow the members-only list. If you're not ready to join APG, take advantage of the public list. You can find information and APG and the two lists at www.apgen.org. Two thousands heads are better than just one!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

APG in London

I fell off the blogging train a while back, but just returned from London, I am enthused again about making regular posts about some of my favorite family history and genealogy topics. The excuse for a winter-time trip to cool and rainy London was the big "Who Do You Think You Are" family history expo in London. I spent one day helping out in the Association of Professional Genealogists "stand" ("booth" in American) and rooming through the crowded exhibit hall. I haven't heard any final estimates on the crowd, but organizers were expecting something in the range of 17,000 attendees, and from what I saw, that number is believable.

You can read more about WDYTYA in several issues of Dick Eastman's newsletter from the last week. I got to meet not only Dick, but also genealogists from Hungary, Germany and the UK. We had a nice contigent of U.S. APG people there, as well.

As exciting as WDYTYA was, highlights of the trip were visits to Kew and Devonshire. To a genealogist, "Kew" means The National Archives, located in the western London suburb of Kew, close by famous Kew Gardens. It is perhaps the most user-friendly archive I have ever worked in. It was amazing to hold in my hands documents from a 1690s law case involving suspected ancestors of my wife.

A 2-hour train ride took us to Tiverton in North Devon, where we visited Barb's third cousin, once removed. Ron and Margaret live in a 17th century house on the edge of Exmoor. After a bountiful English dinner, we talked deep into the night about 400 years of family history. Perhaps, you can now tell why I feel regenerated after a 9-hour plane ride back to snowy Minnesota!