Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Alexander Cooper – Colour Sergeant, Cameronians, Scottish Rifles

My wife’s grandfather, Alexander Cooper, was a military man. In his later personal life he is said to have been difficult, almost tyrannical in the treatment of his children. His life story may explain part of that. I told quite a bit about the man in a post on 12 August 2014: Sometimes Those Family Stories Have a Grain of Truth. In it I only briefly mentioned his army career.

In this piece, relevant to this time of year, I will tell more about that period in Alexander’s life that may have significantly impacted his attitudes and approaches to people.

Alexander joined the British Army with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) on 14 August 1885, at the age of 18 (his attestation form says he was 19 years and 2 months old so he fibbed a bit about that). He was discharged on 30 June 1908, having spent most of his adult life as a soldier. During his service he almost certainly was imbued with a sense of order and a penchant for following the instructions of superiors in rank. That mind-set would likely have permeated his private life after he left the army, particularly when fate dealt him serious personal setbacks.


Alexander rose rapidly through the ranks achieving the position of Colour Sergeant in 1896 (the highest rank possible for non-commissioned soldiers). In addition to the time spent at the Cameronian headquarters in Hamilton, he also served in India (1894-1895) and South Africa (1901-1902). Toward the end of Alexander’s army career he was posted back to Glasgow with the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, an established battalion that was linked with the Cameronians in 1881.

He met and married his first wife, Margaret Scott, in 1890 while stationed at the regimental quarters in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. She was then living on Auchingramont Road, in the nearby village. They moved to Church Street, Hamilton, shortly after their marriage. Alexander and Margaret had two children together, Mary Jane, born in 1892, and Alexander, born in 1895. Both children were born in Lossiemouth, Elgin, Scotland, where Margaret’s parents lived. Mary Jane died of measles in February 1895 on board the ship they were sailing home on from after a posting in India.

In 1901 the family was located in Kent, England, possibly a stopover on their way to a posting in South Africa. Alexander would have worked then at the Brompton Barracks. Following their time in South Africa, Alexander and Margaret returned to Glasgow. They were living on New City Road in 1907 when Margaret fell ill with heart disease and died.

Alexander met and married Elizabeth Walker in 1908 just before his discharge. Both were living in Glasgow at the time. No doubt Alexander appreciated the help Lizzie brought to care for his young son. Lizzie also had a child at the time, daughter Violet, born in 1905. The couple went on to have six children together between 1908 and 1917, the first born on Napiershill Street, Glasgow, and most of the rest when the family lived on Gayfield Street in the city.

The family endured another tragedy in 1916 when Alexander Jr. was killed in action near Bethune, France. He is buried in the local military cemetery there. Alexander is our lone family connection to WWI, having joined the Cameronians in the fall of 1914, just before his 19th birthday.

Another misfortune for Alexander’s family occurred in 1918 when Elizabeth suffered a severe mental affliction. The seriousness of her condition resulted her being institutionalized. Their children, shockingly, were told she had died. (I will deal with that story and subject in a later blog post.) Alexander was now left with a family of young children, the oldest ten years of age and the youngest only one.

Having lost a wife, a daughter and a son, and now losing a second partner, is it any wonder that Alexander may have been overwhelmed with grief and uncertainty? His military training did not prepare him for the new familial situation. His inability to relate to his children other than as a disciplinarian left them traumatized even more. All of them were either sent to live with grandparents or enrolled in boarding schools. The radical change to family life affected them all. Eventually they were separated, growing up under wildly different conditions.

It is important to remember that Alexander served his country faithfully and with distinction. His transition to private life, though, was met with unhappiness and misfortune.


He died in Glasgow at the relatively young age of just 60, felled finally by cancer.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

History and Care by the Church in Local Parishes

Many of the records we can find listing our ancestors, especially prior to civil registration, come from church records, at least in the British Isles. The churches were central to the local societies and, in many respects, governed the habits and deportment of the residents.

Comments can often be found in parish registers, about historical events as well as concerning the behaviour of parishioners. Ministers did not generally hold back when commenting on moral issues in particular. What family researcher has not found a reference to an illicit romance evidenced by a note in the baptism register about pre-marital relations?

The child might well be tagged with the label of bastard, if born out-of-wedlock or before the parents were married. Even the date of conception might be highlighted by clergymen. Such was the case for a 2nd great-grandmother of a friend of mine where a note was inserted into the 1790 baptism register for Lintrathen, Forfarshire, Scotland, saying the child was “begat in antenuptial fornication.”


I was reminded of the role of the church as well in looking at documents and publications for a course I have just started on Scotland 1750 to 1850: Beyond the OPRs (Pharos Teaching and Tutoring). I found a write-up on Campsie Parish, Stirlingshire (birthplace of my 2nd great-grandfather), in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1845 describing the church, its history and its activities, the author, Rev. Mr. James Lapslie, recorded how the church was involved in the formation and adjudication of all manner of the parish’s social structure:

I have all along been accustomed to consider these public religious meetings as beneficial to the manners of the country. The ecclesiastical discipline of this parish is still kept up. As for discipline against fornicators, two days doing public penance in the church, are required, besides a fine of a crown, for each guilty person, to the poor. There has been an opinion entertained, that this public penance has been productive of very bad effects in society; so far has an idea gone forth of this sort, that, for this reason, some writers have pretended to say, that so long as doing public penance was permitted, no person should be put to death for child murder; I am inclined to believe, that it would be much more the interest of the community, in a political light, that the laws of discipline should be more rigidly adhered to; for if once the vulgar of any country, consider incontinency as a venial fault, they are almost ready for the commission of any crime; and as l can easily see, that the shame of doing penance operates to deter others; in this point of view, it is to be considered as answering the ends of edification.

Publications like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland are great sources of information about areas of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The report on Campsie had a lot of information about the weaving and printing industries which employed many of my ancestors.

There are many historical and genealogical publications available now to download. One of the great sites I go to often is Archive.org. A quick search of the site for “Parish of Campsie” in the text of books resulted in 3,378 hits, 281 of them under the sub-category of genealogy. Many were family genealogies.


If you are doing research for your Scottish lines, as I have done recently, don’t forget to look for historical information that can give you important background to how and where your ancestors lived. And do check sites such as the Statistical Accounts and Archive.org for relevant material.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Protestant Reformation Anniversary

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which initiated the break of reformers with the Roman Catholic Church.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the local newspaper titled Guess why the tiny German town of Wittenberg is expecting two million visitors (Calgary Herald, Eliot Stein, October 14th). Stein comments on the activities the town has organized to celebrate the occasion. You might be able to read it here.

On 31 October 1517 (possibly 21 October on the current Gregorian calendar), according to legend, Luther posted his criticisms on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Copies of the documents were quickly circulated throughout Germany. By that time printing presses were in operation across Europe, no doubt contributing to the rapid dissemination of information and ideas to the masses.

1517 printing of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther

Formation of Protestant churches did not happen immediately but the die was cast and many other activists such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli took up the cause.

The reformation marks the beginning, in many European countries, of accurate recording of births, marriage and deaths. Genealogists celebrate this development every day.

The event, of course, happened during the depth of the Little Ice Age when most of Europe was caught up in devastating climatic conditions that made living harsh. Areas throughout the continent were hard-pressed to take care of their citizens, largely led by the Catholic Church. There was great social unrest as people struggled to find employment and food in order to survive. Local parishes were particularly under siege to fund support programs.

In many regions and countries, governments legislated new rules to prevent people from moving around, bringing even more crowds to some localities unable to even take care of their own. I suspect the new laws concerning recording of births, marriage and burials, in many of the newly-established Protestant regimes was really just a way to get a handle on who lived in their areas and who had the wherewithal to help out through taxes.

Anyway, the world did indeed change in 1517. The revolution in religious thought brought with it a great deal of conflict, between religious groups and with the ruling classes who attempted to maintain order and control. Many family historians will be aware of, and have ancestors who may have been a part of groups that dedicated themselves to change – such as the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) – who were the focus of violence, imprisonment and banishment. One such violent event in France was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre during which thousands lost their lives.
 
Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy, oil on panel by Francois Dubois, ca 1572-84 (original in Musee cantonall des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne)

Protestantism of course started long before the 16th century, but the date of 31 October 1571 was a turning point. Family historians everywhere will recognize how the event changed the lives of many of their ancestors.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

What do you do when you want to find families named Miller?

My mother was a Miller, not the kind that ground grain, although there were a few members of at least one line who did own a mill in Virginia, USA in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Miller is one of those very common names, probably originated from the occupation, that seem to be prevalent everywhere.

I wrote about the Miller family history in North America back in 2016 (Moving 7 – The Miller Family Goes West).

We in North America are descended from a man named John Conrad Miller, as discovered by my aunt in the 1970s. In her family history summary she said:

John Conrad Miller is the first American of this line we have found.  There were many German settlements, both in Ohio and Indiana, with numerous Millers among them.  But whether John came to the United States with his parents or came on his own cannot be answered.

Since John was a blacksmith, it is easy to conclude that he met Hannah Mayfield through her brother John, also a smithy.  The marriage of John and Hannah probably was performed in Jefferson County, Indiana, but the exact date is not known. It was not unusual in those days for a Justice of the Peace, living in a community, to perform a marriage then fail to record it when he made a trip to the county seat.  This may have been the case in this instance.

After their marriage, John and Hannah remained in Jefferson County for about a year. Their first child, Matilda Ann, was born there in September 1839.  In 1840, they were in Cincinnati, Ohio.

From the time Cincinnati was founded, through many decades that followed, the city was frequently devastated with Bubonic Plague. [Note: I think my aunt might have meant Cholera as I cannot find any mention of the plague as she described.]  This is cause to wonder if he took his family north to Mason in Warren County where their third child, Isaac M., was born, although the family was back in Cincinnati before the end of that year, 1843.  According to all reports available, John Conrad Miller died in Cincinnati in 1846 at a young age.

In 2010 I did finally find a marriage license for John and Hannah, issued in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, USA. John was a resident of Tippecanoe while Hannah lived in Jefferson County at the time. Now these two places are 150 miles apart and it is difficult to envision how John and Hannah came to meet considering people may not have travelled all that far in those times. My aunt might be right in her supposition that they were introduced by her brother. But then how did those two gentlemen meet?

The frequency of the Miller name is currently actually higher in North America (4,544 per million) than in Germany (241 per million) where my family line apparently originated - according to search information from the publicprofiler website. And John is the most frequent forename.
 
World statistics for the surname Miller from the publicprofiler worldnames website
We have only one reference to John Conrad’s birthplace, that on the 1880 US census for my great-grandfather, Isaac Mayfield Miller, one of John Conrad’s sons. It says his father and mother were born in Wertenberg [sic]. We know his mother’s birthplace is wrong – she was born in Maryland, USA – but the place name for his father is certainly interesting. We believe John Conrad was born in 1815 but that has not been confirmed either. His forenames could also have been Johann or Johannes and Konrad; his surname could just as well have originally been Mueller.

We cannot know if Wurttemberg is the right place as it was recorded on the census 34 years after John Conrad’s death, but it is a start. FamilySearch.org has a number of people of that name in its library, but none of them ever left Germany.

There is no Miller or Shepheard research going on with the Guild of One-Name Studies. There is a Miller DNA project though whose participants might prove useful one day.


Before his death I persuaded my cousin, a direct male descendant of John Conrad Miller, to take a Y-DNA test with FamilyTreeDNA. I wrote about that in a blog post, DNA Matches, earlier this year. There have been some matches but no one with whom we can definitively connect our roots. I live in hope!

Common names like Miller have their difficulties in separating families and finding roots, especially when migration occurred before passenger lists were saved. And without specific documents that indicate where individuals came from, it can be most disappointing.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 8: Volcanoes

When I gave a presentation on natural phenomena and family history last year, I was asked about whether and when we might experience a major volcanic eruption in Yellowstone. I said I did not expect such a thing for thousands of years yet and that we should not worry too much about it.

Coincidentally, shortly afterward National Geographic magazine featured the region in its May 2016 issue. The magazine had previously reported on the volcanic eruptions there in August 2009 (When Yellowstone Explodes). In that issue was a map showing what areas had been impacted by major eruptions during the last 18 million years. Great outpourings of lava have occurred at intervals of about 2.2 million years. The deposits are spread along a line extending 430 miles from northern Nevada to northwest Wyoming which resulted as the North American plate moved across a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle. The last eruption occurred about 640 thousand years ago suggesting it will be a very long time before we have to worry about another event.
 
Map of volcanic fields resulting from major eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano over the past 18 million years published by National Geographic in August 2009
Eruptions of this supervolcano have never affected human populations but the fear remains. Occasionally articles will appear in magazines and scientific reports about the NEXT BIG ONE and whether it will happen much sooner that what the timing of previous episodes may indicate. A story appeared on the National Geographic website last week by Victoria Jaggard titled Yellowstone Supervolcano May Rumble to Life Faster Than Thought.

I remain convinced that we do not have to be concerned about being wiped out by a Yellowstone eruption, at least within the next several hundred generations. But eventually it will happen.

With our lifetimes we have witnessed the effects of volcanoes spreading death and destruction in many part of the world. The most affected regions are those on the edges of tectonic plates such as the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean.

Historically there are many examples of ash and lava spreading over areas inhabited by humans. Most resulted in the deaths of scores of people and, for that reason, are worth reviewing in any family history study. Researchers may find that some of their ancestors were affected by the spread of volcanic ash and gas: sickness of themselves or their livestock; damage to environment and its impact on agriculture; and even death.

The devastation in Pompeii certainly would have ended many family lines when the mountain exploded in AD 79. We know communities nearby volcanoes can be quickly buried by lava and ash and their residents killed or forced to evacuate. Deleterious effects of ash and poisonous gases thrown into the atmosphere can be measured around the globe for many years after a major eruption.

Among the many that resulted in major death tolls are:
Year
Volcano
Location
Death Toll
1815
Mount Tambora
Indonesia
100,000
1883
Krakatau
Indonesia
36,000
1902
Mount Pelée
Martinique
30,000
1985
Nevado del Ruiz
Columbia
23,000
1600
Huaynaputina
Peru
15,000
1792
Mount Unzen
Japan
15,000
1783
Laki
Iceland
10,000

Laki, Iceland

A major eruption in Iceland in June of 1793 resulted in millions of tons of ash and gas being ejected into the lower troposphere. Over several months it spread across Europe and into the Middle East. It has been estimated that over 23,000 people perished as a result of the toxic plume.

Tambora

The last major eruption in Tambora in April 1815, its early explosions heard over 800 miles away. More than 90,000 people died in Indonesia alone. Over 24 cubic miles of gas and particulate were pushed into the stratosphere which then, within weeks, spread around the world. The Earth was blanketed by a shadowy, poisonous veil which caused havoc with climatic conditions: sunlight was reflected back into space; temperatures at the surface were cooled, and weather patterns were completely disrupted. The year following the Tambora eruption has been called the Year Without Summer because in most parts of the world in 1815, conditions were wet, cold and just plain miserable!

Krakatau

The paroxysmal eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia in August 1883 also spread dust and gas around the world. The initial blast was heard more than 2,000 miles away in Australia. A tsunami, almost 150 feet in places rolled over coastlines around the Pacific Ocean. Similar climatic disruption occurred as was caused by the Tambora event. In this case, reports were transmitted around the world almost simultaneously due to the improvements in broadcast technologies. Due to its proximity in time to today, this event has been more studied than any other volcanic event and provides a significant example of what can – and probably did – happen when such natural phenomena occur.
 
Lithograph: The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888)
Mount Pelée

More recently the top of Mount Pelée was blasted apart in May 1902. A resulting pyroclastic avalanche rolled down over the city of Saint Pierre killing virtually everyone in its path. Residents failed to heed the warnings of the eruption which began three weeks before the major event, assuming that only lava would be produced as had been the case previously. Many even stayed to observe the beginnings of the eruption, much as they do around other volcanoes around the world such as in Hawaii. In the end people failed to take seriously the power of a volcano and paid with their lives.


In terms of family history studies, volcanic events may have played an important role in changing the lives of many families in the past, in ways similar to that of the four outlined here. Such life-altering effects may have resulted from eruptions which occurred on the other side of world; a knowledge of natural history might be useful.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Canadian Thanksgiving

For those of you reading this who do not live in Canada, this past Monday was Thanksgiving in Canada. To my Canadian readers, Happy Thanksgiving!

Our holiday lands on the second Monday of October each year, in contrast to that in the United States which is the fourth Thursday in November. Like the one in the US, it is a celebration of the end of harvest and a time when families get together. In some areas there may be parades.

It has been a national holiday here since 1879 when the Canadian Parliament designated the celebration with legislation. The date was not fixed at the time, though. The current date of the second Monday was established only in 1957. It has been marked by Canadians wherever they may have been around the world for a century and a half.
 
Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force celebrate Thanksgiving in the bombed out Cambrai Cathedral in France in October 1918
Our traditional menu is similar to that in the US, other than in localities where different produce may be grown. Normally there is roast turkey (we had ham this year) with stuffing and cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy (ours was cheesy potatoes for a change), sweet potatoes (my favourite) and autumn vegetables (there were carrots and peas on our table). Dessert, brought by our nephew’s wife was apple pie (a traditional fall fruit) and ice cream (good anytime).

It was the United Empire Loyalists, coming from the US after the American Revolution who brought us delights like the turkey and often consumed pumpkin pie. And probably those great sweet potatoes as well! Thank you!

Historically, apparently the first celebration in our part of the world (North America) was by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1578 during his search for the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Islands. In later centuries French and English settlers organized feasts of thanks in the early autumn, sometimes sharing them with their indigenous neighbours. Surviving Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth Colony, in what is now Massachusetts, held their first harvest feast in October 1621.

The event in both Canada and the US now feature football games although we do not think that any of the original participants of the festivals played the North American variety. Children may well have played with balls, perhaps even kicked one around as their parents and ancestors had done for centuries before.

Thanksgiving is for families. Whether they are small or large, include several generations of just immediate family members, it is a day set aside to celebrate just being together.


I hope yours was a Happy Thanksgiving, too, this year...or will be in a few weeks.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

If all the Devon baptisms were on FMP!

Recently on the Rootsweb list there was discussion about the availability of Devon, England parish registers online. Several people offered suggestions about where information might be found. Some lamented on the fact that there was no one site where they could go to see all the records. All the comments about and leading up to this subject can be found in the DEVON-L Archives for September.

By the way, these kinds of lists are great for continuing discussions on various subjects, in particular specific families and research techniques. I know many people are moving to social media outlets such as Facebook but I find the Rootsweb and other similar discussion forums valuable because each message is delivered right to my inbox. And I can choose which area, subject or even names I want to connect with on different lists.

Of particular note, though, was the response from Terry Leaman, the Chairman of the Devon Family History Society (DFHS), who commented about what was available on the Society’s website for members and the great work that has been done by volunteers over many decades to make data accessible for researchers.

I thought Terry’s comments were worth reproducing here. I have benefited from having information transcribed by DFHS members. I have also done a lot of transcribing of parish registers and censuses in the Devon region and know about the time it takes to go through the hundreds of pages of records and decipher hard-to-read entries.

Because I do not live anywhere near Devon, I really appreciate the work that DFHS members have done over the years, especially the locals some of whom I know have spent countless hours in the archives offices. Membership in the DFHS is one I find of great value and will definitely keep.

Terry’s comments:

What people need to understand is that, whilst it is a legal requirement for parish registers to be housed in a suitable storage facility, it is not a requirement to put them online. Many of the indexes/transcriptions on FindMyPast (FMP) that are not linked to images came from the Devon Family History Society and are the work of volunteers over a forty year period.

Family History Societies were some of the first organisations to start indexing registers that were not permitted to be filmed by the LDS. Most of the IGI for Devon at that time was the result of filming published books by the likes of the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.

The DFHS continues to index data not available online at this time. This includes the 52 parishes for which the images are in the members' only area of the Society website. The LDS were refused permission to film these but Devon FHS were allowed to. There are two parishes where permission has been totally refused to digitise the registers.

DFHS volunteers are also working on the Methodist registers in both North Devon and Exeter record offices, as well as a number of civil cemeteries- Torquay & Ford Park Cemeteries are already on FMP thanks to DFHS volunteers.

It is a major concern that Family History Societies are losing members because of online resources, Family History Societies (out of public view) constantly liaise with Record Offices or in the case of Devon and Somerset with the South West Heritage Trust, to ensure that family history is not forgotten,   BUT if they don't survive who will step forward to fill the gap? Who will continue indexing those obscure records that would not otherwise be done- see the Devon Social records on FMP.

As to transcription errors, if you could see some of the atrocious writing that is encountered you would understand why errors happen. One register we've encountered recently looks like the writing is upside down and back to front- IT IS honestly that bad. It is easy IF you are looking for a specific name in a parish. It's a lot easier to read something if you know what it should say.

Terry was describing the efforts and trials of the Devon society but his comments probably equally apply to every other family history society.


If you are using and getting a lot out of transcriptions perhaps you might think about volunteering to do some of that work. You do not have to live close to where the societies are to help.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 7: Disease

One may not always equate disease with natural disasters, other examples being earthquakes or hurricanes, but they are part of the history of people and communities and they are a product of nature, in these cases a most virulent kind that does not involve the destruction of property.

The world does not see epidemics of the scope that existed before the discovery of vaccines or development of modern hygiene practices. But even into the 20th century, in many regions where our ancestors lived, communities were often attacked by diseases. If you want to count the types and numbers of epidemics that we know about just in recorded history, there is a list on Wikipedia (List of Epidemics).

Very commonly in past centuries, smallpox, cholera, influenza and plague killed thousands of people, sometimes millions, before they were checked or ran out of steam. Today most are confined to less-well developed regions of the world, where living conditions are poor and good hygiene virtually non-existent. In developed countries we have learned how to control or eradicate most of them through maintaining ourselves in better health and with inoculations. We still see small pockets of sicknesses we thought we had rid ourselves of in areas where people have determined they do not need vaccines, but thankfully they are small in number.

Family historians will undoubtedly come across examples in their own families where ancestors contracted and even died of diseases we don’t hear much about any more. I wrote about the Scourge of Phthisis (Tuberculosis) in 2015 and how it had killed great-grandmothers of my wife and me. I have come across references to this particular malady in many records.

I know that the main community in which my Shepheard ancestors lived – Cornwood, Devon, England – according to the church burial register, was visited by cholera, measles, typhus, smallpox and whooping cough. These were recorded only by two incumbents in two periods between 1770-1772 and 1799-1823. We do not have causes of death in church records for the other years between 1685 and 1993 but can reasonably surmise that, at least in the early centuries, disease was also a factor in the deaths of residents. A high proportion of the deaths in this area, prior to the 20th century, were children and infants as I described in a post title Trends in Ages of Death in Cornwood Parish, Devon in 2015.


One of the last major epidemics in modern times was the Spanish Flu in 1918-20. Estimates put the death toll between 75 million world-wide. Not since the Plague of Justinian in 541-545 (25-50 million, 40% of population) or the Black Death in 1346-50 (75-200 million, 30-60% of population), has the number been so high. Hundreds of thousands more died during the Great Plague of the 1660s. Early European explorers brought diseases with them to foreign shores, unleashing devastating results to indigenes populations, completely eradicating many communities. While this was not strictly caused by only natural conditions, the result was the same.

Not all death or burial records indicate what the causes of death were. In the case of many people, especially children dying within a short period it may be useful too look at whether disease was the reason. Information about those events may be found in newspapers or other historical publications.


Disease, particularly when widespread is no less a disaster than an earthquake or hurricane. While not caused by geologic or atmospheric processes it is still a part of nature.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Organizing and Storing Your Family History Data – My Thoughts

A friend of mine, actually an uncle of my grandsons, has recently been the recipient of his aunt’s voluminous family history files and is now going through the process of organizing and storing them. His Aunt Marion worked for decades assembling information about their family, storing most of it on paper, though. She was never really efficient or familiar with computers and genealogy programs. So Sandy’s task of preserving the data is immense.

He has asked how I keep my files and what programs I use as he is aware of the years I have put into finding family information. He does access my family data on our personal website which uses The Next Generation software – which I do heartily recommend for people who want to put their material online and accessible to other family members.

Sandy is like many people, using laptops as a primary method of working. I still have a desktop that is in use all day, every day, with two large monitors so that I can open several files and websites at the same time. I also like the ideas of being able to see more of the files I am working at and using a separate keyboard. It’s just the way I work.

Sandy has asked my advice about family history software and computer equipment on a few occasions. I don’t usually write here about how to organize data, as there are so many others who offer such great advice. But I thought I would answer his questions as part of a blog post and share some of my thoughts on organization and preservation of data with other readers. So here are some of Sandy’s questions and comments over the past several weeks along with my replies to him:

Wayne:  I was informed that you have now taken charge of all Marion’s boxes of family files. Over the years she gave me lists and summaries of family information but not copies of actual BMD or other documents. Through my own subscriptions I have downloaded a few documents, mostly censuses. But I have not spent a lot of time with the families.

Sandy: I have huge numbers of BMDs and many other original documents and letters.  Many early photos as well. This family treasure is open to you of course. I will need to email you quite extensively in a few months from now on the best equipment to buy and how best to arrange this material. I figure it will take me several years to input everything, but that is what i am going to do. I look forward to doing the work and am now taking a first look at everything. I have already started to add much data to MyHeritage set up. You have access to this I believe. God knows I have grabbed hundreds of pieces of data from your info online!

Wayne: I am happy to help with any organization suggestions. I was glad to hear that Marion’s vast treasure trove of data was not trashed and that someone like you with an interest in family history took it all over. Yes I do have access to your family tree on MyHeritage but have to confess I have spent practically no time looking at it. Just did so and discovered so many photos of your ancestors as a start. Wonderful! It does look like you have a great beginning with your family tree on MyHeritage.

In terms of sharing documents and files, we might set up a Dropbox where each of us can put copies and take copies. I have done away with a lot of paper files now, except for the originals that have come down through family members. They are, in my mind, the same as antiques and physical memorabilia and need to be kept. Any documents I have found online are stored digitally now, in specific family files, on my computer  – and backed up offsite in the cloud, of course (never forget to do that).

I only have my entire tree on our Shepheard family site – although it needs a bit of updating. I did end up with a copy on MyHeritage years ago because I had stored it with a predecessor company that was taken over by MyHeritage. It is woefully out-of-date but I still get notices of matches regularly through my subscription. Unfortunately many of those matches are wrong or I never hear from other tree-owners when I ask questions or confirm matches.

I do regularly visit Ancestry and have found several relatives on some trees there. I have made a few contacts there with who I have shared information. I also have had (related) people contact me through my blog posts look me up, as well as through the websites I maintain for my Online Parish Clerk volunteer position.

Anyway I am looking forward to learning more about my grandsons’ family through you.

Sandy: I have purchased a MacBook Air. It is quite small, but I do my work on a small table in my bedroom or on my lap in the living room on my Lazyboy.  I also have an apple iPad and will probably buy an iPhone as well. Apple does not seem to like sharing with android, so, I will go all Mac.

Wayne: Good luck with your organization of all the new data. There are some genealogical programs suitable for Mac users of course if you want to keep your data on your own machine where, incidentally and most importantly, it can be backed up to one of the cloud servers. If you are not already connected to something like Carbonite or one of the others then I very strongly recommend it. I have had a computer crash before and lost hundreds of files and emails I had saved, including my latest family history summary. I do not want to go through that again, especially with all the data and photos I have stored digitally. My daughter has us set up on Carbonite which automatically scans our computers and updates regularly. I am copying this email to her in case you want to consult with her about the technology.

I do recommend that you scan all documents and photos and keep them on your own computer or other device and so they can be backed up. The originals should be placed in archival binders, file folders or boxes to preserve them. All my family photos are now in binders for safekeeping and future access. You may have read my blog post on Digitizing Memories a few months ago. All of our immediate family albums have been scanned and I am in the process of uploading them to Google Photos so that our kids and grandkids can see them. I will do the same with the six leather-bound albums of historical photos one of these days. The individual photos in those, though, have been scanned and are on my computer. That is one of the very important things to do with such material so that if anything happens to the paper records (floods, fire, vandalism, etc.) you will still have the memories saved.

Sandy: I have been learning about memory sticks and how to use them.

Wayne: Memory sticks are fine for transferring data from one place or person to another. As with other forms of copying and storage – floppy disks, VHR tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc. – very little is known about how long they will last. I think the common perception is that they won’t last forever and that eventually they will all fail, be replaced or the information on them will become degraded. The safest place I have found to preserve information is on one of the subscriber sites where storage of data is maintained in the cloud but still accessible anytime, anywhere and by anyone you choose.

By the way, whatever method you choose to organize and store information, be sure there is someone who will be able to inherit it or take over management of it when you are gone. Otherwise the information could be lost forever.

Sandy: I think that I will continue with MyHeritage and my experiment with one of the others. I haven’t seriously got a plan yet. I am still reading through the documents which will take the next six months or so.

Wayne: Once your history data is entered into whatever program you use you can throw away the scraps of paper. Again, I keep my families all in separate folders, in an overall Genealogy folder, on my hard drive, so they are easy to find, review and update. As you go back in time the numbers of families increases exponentially, so you need to keep separate files in order to be able to recall and work on the data. I find it easier to do on the computer while I know others still have file cabinets full of paper.

MyHeritage is fine for organizing data (and finding cousins) but it is not a place where everyone can access it if you want to share with family members. Nor are any of the other similar online sites. Copying information, especially photos, is challenging on MyHeritage as one cannot get a very good quality reproduction. Again it is important that you have someone who can take over the site when you are gone. Not all websites or services have a way to assign a beneficiary but most do allow a second contact person or co-manager. A serious problem can occur when a subscriber dies and no one takes over or renews the subscription. In those cases, all data may be deleted.

A separate family history website serves the purpose of sharing data as does a Dropbox folder. The latter is also a good way to store information.

Sandy: Do you secretly desire to write a dialogue or a book on your family? I have no illusions about my talent as a writer, even if I did study literature and history in college. But I see such a cavalcade of historic flow here that it makes me what to organize everything together verbally.

Wayne: I have written a book on my Shepheard ancestors in Devon. It was printed with a soft cover and distributed to those family members who were willing to pay for the cost of printing. It had histories of each generation back to my 8th great-grandparents and contained copies of all BMD, census and other records. I wanted to be able to share what I had learned with the family. I just finished a shorter version for Linda’s paternal ancestors. We have not got beyond her 2nd great-grandparents yet but at least it’s a start. My brother-in-law has done a DNA test, so we hope we can find ancestors further back through other cousins who may have also tested.

As for writing ability, I always tell people anyone can set down their thoughts. If they need help they can always find others to edit or proofread. I wrote about this in another blog post last year, Helpful Hints to Writing Anything.


Readers of this post may have many comments on technology, equipment or methodology. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Who's living with who?

A query from one of my distant cousins on the Devon Rootsweb list posed a question about why some people were labelled as visitors or lodgers when they were, in fact, related to the head of household. In the case of Pamela’s finding, it seems the head of household’s mother was referred to as a “lodger” rather than as his mother. You can find the thread of the discussion here.

Anyone who has been through census records, on any continent, which I imagine includes everyone reading this post, has likely found inconsistencies in how information was recorded – not counting misspellings – particularly with regard to relationships. Some records may not indicate there was a familial connection. Others may have the wrong relationship.

I wrote about relatives name Charles Pearson a while back (What can you find out from a will? Part 3). I was trying to track down a great-granduncle of that name. Another man named Charles Pearson had been named in his aunt’s will (Blog 170) but I was having a difficult time tracking him down as well and figuring out who his father was. I found the Charles named in the will on the 1901 England census, living with an older man of the same name. He was shown as a nephew of the older Charles. The older Charles had been born in Australia which was important information because my great-granduncle had been born there. That kind of confirmed in my mind that both were the family members. The younger Charles turned out to be the son of another great-granduncle, James Pearson who had died in 1897 when young Charles was only five years old. Anyway, young Charles ended up being mostly raised by his uncle and aunt. To make a longer story short, in 1911 he was living with his married cousin, Emmie (Pearson) Taylor, a daughter of the older Charles, but he was described as a brother-in-law of Emmie’s husband, Joseph. Quite obviously Charles and Emmie thought of themselves as siblings; either that or the enumerator did not know how to describe someone who was a cousin of the wife of the head of the household.

I have found many children who were living with grandparents, siblings or aunts and uncles, as shown on census records. That indicates to me that families were quite close and tended to take care of each other when times required it. Sometimes step-children were labelled as in-laws, or vice versa. Before adoption was formalized, children may have been recorded as step-children or just sons and daughters. Often they were been shown with the head of household’s name even when they had not been formally or informally adopted. I have found a few people by searching for them using their forenames only.

In my wife’s family, I found her great-grandparents, William and Mary Ann (Anderson) Milne, and her 2nd great-grandmother, Isabella (Norrie) Anderson, on the 1871 Scotland census, living at the same address. At first I was not sure these were the right people as one surname was written as Mills. The reproduction of the image was also not of great quality either which added to the uncertainty. From the names of all the people in the household, along with their ages, places of birth and occupations, though, I concluded they were Linda’s ancestors.
 
1871 Scotland Census - 111 High Street, Forres, Morayshire - showing families of William & Mary Ann Milne and Isabella Anderson (retrieved from ScotlandsPeople 4 September 2017)
On the particular census record there were two heads of families in the building. One was William, of course, and the second was Isabella Anderson. Attached to William’s family was an Elizabeth Anderson, servant. From the surname it might have been assumed this person was related. In fact we believe she was William’s sister-in-law, Mary Ann’s sister. In Isabella’s household was a two-year old, Mary Ann McLean, a granddaughter. She turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of another sister of Mary Ann and Elizabeth, Isabella. I have not yet found what happened to this Isabella. It is possible that she married or died before the 1871 census. At any rate, Mary Ann McLean was still living with her grandmother in 1881 although I have not found her after that census. So we had all kinds of history on this one document, even though some of it was confusing.

In the discussion about relationship issues on censuses, there were many suggestions about how this might come about. Most people responding think that the enumerator was “not sure who the old lady in the corner was” or had been misinformed by whoever they talked with. Both sides may have been uninformed as to the rules of recording people. In this case the enumerator may have assumed they were to fill our whether the individual was being supported as a member of the head of household’s family rather than paying rent as a lodger might. References to the rules were offered by one person in the discussion of this case. One of the last comments was, “It's worth remembering that the head of the household had to understand the census requirements and communicate the information to the enumerator. In an age of low literacy (and Devon accents) it was often up to the enumerator to make the decision.


We can only presume why such entries were made the way they were. But it is always useful to look further, especially when the surnames are the same. There may be a family member lurking as a visitor or servant.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Finding Birth Parents

Earlier this year I assisted a friend in finding her birth mother. This was my first foray into looking for parents of adoptees and I was surprised how much information there actually was available to help in the process. For privacy reasons I will refer to various people here using only forenames, not necessarily all of them the real ones.

Our friend, Karen, had two sources of information. One, of course, was the official adoption records which, in Alberta, can now be obtained by children who were put up for adoption. The file contained the following:
·         the date of birth of the child, obviously (1950)
·         the baby’s name (Adele) given to her at birth, along with the name given by the adoptive parents (Karen)
·         the full name of the mother (Mavis) at the time of the child’s birth, and her occupation (stenographer)
·         Mavis’s place of residence, at the time of the child’s birth and the mother’s usual abode (Grande Prairie, Alberta)
·         information on the mother’s and father’s families, with names redacted, but with parents’ occupations and other personal information, for example the maternal grandfather had been wounded in WWI and was now deceased

All of this information together was important in discovering Mavis’s entire family.

Karen also had her DNA tested at 23andMe which resulted in a match with another person (Terry) of close to 12%. That meant they were first cousins. In an exchange of emails, they compared family trees and names and came up with the conclusion that one of the Terry’s uncles had to be Karen’s father as Mavis did not match with anyone in Terry’s family.

You cannot always know whether all of the information given in the record is accurate or factual. In the case of the Karen’s birth father’s name and family we deduced it was not correct, either because he lied to the mother about his background or she chose not to divulge what she really knew to the adoption authorities. For example, his name was given as Emanuel Ford and his family had lived in central Alberta and he was in the military. Other data – mainly the DNA test information – suggested that was not his name which led us to the thought that perhaps the child had only been conceived in a “manual Ford” vehicle – a little play on words there.

With Mavis’s full name and usual residence I looked first at voters’ lists. In Grande Prairie, there was a woman who fit the particulars of name, occupation and marital status living with another woman named Sophia. The list had been compiled the year before Karen was born. Sophia was a widow, which fit with Mavis’s father being deceased.

Patricia Greber, a friend at the South Peace Regional Archives, did a search for the family, including Mavis, Sophia and others. She found a 1967 obituary for Sophia that named her husband (Edward), daughter (Mavis), son (Jack) and several other grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. It was gold mine of information, particularly as it contained Mavis’s married name. Other news reports included a marriage notice for Sophia and Edward, a birth announcement for Jack, a death announcement for Edward and a 2007 obituary for Jack. All together they listed many people related to Mavis, both dead and alive, and where they lived at the times of the news reports. A person named Adele was listed, who was a half-first cousin to Karen, possibly the individual for whom she was first named.

I searched further for Sophia and Edward and found them and other family members on censuses, ship passenger records and military records, as well as on birth, marriage and death records. Armed with the information from all of this data I was able to piece together an extensive family tree for Karen on her birth mother’s side, going back to England and the USA, and with some interesting stories about how her parents had come together.

As I indicated, the obituaries for Sophia and Jack carried Mavis’s married name. They also named her husband, son and grandchildren. I thought to myself, “Most people today are on social media now. I wonder if Mavis is there as well.” A quick search of Facebook found both Mavis and her son, Jack, each site with a large photo library. There was even one of Mavis on her 89th birthday, looking hale and hearty.

The search for Karen’s biological father was somewhat more straightforward. With the information from Terry we could narrow down which of her uncles was likely Karen’s biological father. Only one was in the military (so that part of the adoption record information seemed to be true) and he probably trained in Grande Prairie around the time Mavis became pregnant. The adoption document stated the father was married at the time but other information indicated he did not marry until many years later although the wedding did take place in Grande Prairie.

In the end, Karen elected not to pursue a contact with her biological father – he is still alive – as it could prove embarrassing to him, his children and, of course, to Terry for having volunteered information about him. Karen did send a letter to Mavis, though, telling her a bit about her happy life as an adopted child. She left it with Mavis to decide whether any further contact would come about. Again, Karen did not want to cause any embarrassment to Mavis or her family and is quite content to go forward without any contact with her birth mother.


I should say that Karen has never been unhappy or unsatisfied with her life. Growing up, she always bragged to my wife that her mother and father got to pick her from thousands of babies while Linda’s parents had to take what they got. In both cases, of course, the girls were very content with their families. After Karen lost her adoptive parents, she got curious about the circumstances of her birth and started to look for information. She was pleased to be able to at least, and at last identify her birth parents and get to know the history of their families.