Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A little trick in finding people whose surname was changed

Most genealogists may know most of the tricks in finding people whose surnames have changed formally or when they have been recorded under the wrong name. Many years ago someone showed me one of them by finding my wife’s grandfather and great-grandmother. 

I used it myself to find first cousins who I had never met. I don’t think my mother, their aunt, ever saw them as her brother divorced their mother in 1927 when they were less than three years old. I believe she knew about them. The children of a half-brother of these individuals grew up never knowing about them either.

When small children are part of a divorce, they often end up with one parent and never see the other one again. That may be especially true if the divorce was bitter and full custody of the children was obtained by one parent. In past times it was usually the mother who got the kids. Not that that was in necessarily unreasonable for many of those cases but it was most common.

My Uncle Randall Miller was married a few times. In between marriages, he lived with another one or two women. He was not a mean or nasty individual. In fact he was quite gregarious, kind and well-meaning, at least as far as we knew him. He just couldn’t seem to settle down for a long period with one partner.

Randall was born in Oklahoma in 1902, on a homestead near Yukon, OK. The family moved to Kansas in 1904. Randall’s parents, my grandparents, rented and operated several farms around the region before finally moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1914. They settled in Oregon for several years, where my mother was born.

Randall’s first marriage was to Violet Marie Gosney, on 10 June 1922, in Bend, OR. They had two children together: Richard, born in 1924 and Betty Jean, born in 1925. The records stop there for the Miller children. The next we hear of Randall is when he married Dorothy Tyler in 1928.

There is no record of Violet Marie, Richard or Betty Jean with the surname of Miller. I looked as well for them with the name Gosney, thinking perhaps she had taken back her maiden name after the divorce. No luck there either. Then I tried the trick of looking just for the three people with their forenames. Very quickly I found them all on both the 1930 and 1940 censuses, living in Oregon, but with the surname of Conner. By 1930 there were two other children in the Conner family: Clarence Dale, born in 1927; and Peggy Marie, born in 1929. Another arrived in 1935 - Patsy Lee. Later information found indicated another son, William, was born sometime after 1940.
Portion of 1930 US Census showing the Clarence LeRoy and Violet Marie (Gosney) family living in Portland, Oregon
Now there is some conflicting information on the census about the second marriages of Randall and Violet Marie. The 1930 US censuses show the ages of the parties at the date of their “first” marriage. In both cases it appears that Randall’s and Violet’s ages correspond to the married people on the census rather than a previous union. From that information one would normally assume that any children were of the parents shown. A search for the later Conner children resulted in finding death records that confirmed their mother’s maiden name was Gosney, though, essentially tying the circle back to Randall. Whether or not Richard and Betty Jean were formally adopted by Clarence Conner I do not know yet.

Tracing the family members through their first names only resulted in finding valuable information about my first cousins and their half-siblings. I still do not have all the data I would like but I have a good start.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 6: Floods

Natural events that will come to mind for most readers, and that many may have been affected by, are floods – whether of the rapid overnight or slow-developing over weeks type. Floods are normal things; they happen every year and in almost every river valley. Sometimes they are minor events; other times they are devastating – to people and communities. But they have been part of natural phenomena forever.

Historically most farming communities have benefited by river flooding that brought moisture and deposited rich new sediment across fields.

Seared into human memory, though, are the major, disastrous varieties, when infrastructure and human lives were lost on a grand scale. For family historians, again, such events may have ended up forcing people to migrate or left chaos among the lives of survivors.

In any year, as far back as records exist, one may find descriptions of floods that disrupted communities and took lives.

Naturally occurring floods are almost always a result of major storms. Exceptions are those that arrive as tsunamis (see blog post of 20 June 2017). Along shorelines floods may arise from sea surges, those also produced by storms in the open ocean. Every continent has had its share of large-scale flooding. Those with very extensive river systems or large collection areas may suffer through floods extending over vast areas.

In Europe the greatest disasters from flooding resulting from storm surges, coming ashore mostly from the North Sea. The 1287 St. Lucia flood is reported to have killed 50,000 to 80,000 people in the Netherlands and northern Germany. What had been a large fresh water lake surrounded by farming communities and fronted by barrier islands and peat swamps was turned into an extension of the North Sea – the Zuiderzee. There were undoubtedly many similar floods in the region as sea level rose following the last major ice age. There would be many more such storms in succeeding centuries, particularly during the Little Ice Age (AD 1315-1850), until residents learned to mostly control them with dams, dykes and surge barriers.

A major flood hit north-central England in November 1771. A storm broke over the highlands of the Pennines with heavy rain for several days combined with melting of snow in the highest reaches. All rivers flowing out of the region, to the north, south, east and west overflowed their banks, from the source areas to the tidal inlets, over 60 miles in the cases of the Tyne, Tees and Wear Rivers.

In many areas the water arrived in flash-floods with water levels rising over the eaves of houses within minutes. Buildings of all types, ships tied up along the wharves, goods left lying on quays, farm animals and implements and, of course, people were swept away in the raging currents. Bridges, including the 500-year old Tyne Bridge at Newcastle, were unable to withstand the onslaught of water and were destroyed. In some areas, water levels in the lower reaches were over 12 feet above normal, high spring tides.
Gaps through Pennine Mountains; Topographic Map of the UK; Mercator projection
Etching of Tyne Bridge at Newcastle after the 1771 flood; source – Newcastle Libraries
In North America, the Mississippi River and all of its major tributaries have consistently inundated lands adjacent to their water courses. They are not called floodplains for no reason!

The drainage area for the Mississippi encompasses 1,245,000 square miles. From its source in Minnesota, it takes on the flow from 10 major tributaries, eventually dumping millions of tons of sediment into its delta area in the Gulf of Mexico. During frequent floods it also delivers substantial volumes of new soil to surrounding farmland in all the river valleys.
Mississippi River tributaries, from USGS data
There have been dozens of major flood episodes in the Mississippi basin, from upriver storms, hurricanes arriving from the Gulf of Mexico or exceptional snow melt from the Rocky Mountains and runoff in the tributaries coming from there. The lower Mississippi always seemed to get the brunt of the excess water. The earliest report of a flood is from 1543 when Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto arrived at the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers.

The most disastrous flood in recorded history in the United States happened in 1927 as exceptional amounts of rain fell along many of the major tributaries of the central part of the basin. Over 27,000 acres were covered with water, with depths up to 30 feet, primarily in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. More than 700,000 people were left homeless; 500 people died. Many of the displaced, particularly those in the labouring class, gave up on the region and migrated to northern and Midwestern cities. Following this event, the US Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, charging the US Army Corps of Engineers with the task of establishing controls on the flow and flooding of the river system.
1927 Mississippi River flooded areas - Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, RG; source – Public Domain
In China, major rivers have also experienced widespread flooding over the centuries. The best documented are, of course, the most recent. In 1931, a combination of melting of large snow accumulations in the western mountain ranges, exceptional and heavy rain in the central regions and cyclone activity from the eastern ocean saw substantial more volumes of water in the system than normal. In addition, “[e]xcessive deforestation, wetland reclamation, and the over-extension of river dyke networks transformed regular flood pulses, which were an integral feature of the fluvial ecosystem, into destructive inundations, which wrought chaos upon human communities.” (
Great flood at Gaoyou, Jingsu province; source - The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou website
Rebuilding of dykes following the disastrous flooding in 1931; Sampans transport the soil to Gaoyou Dikes on the Grand Canal, Jiangsu Province. Source - The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou website
The cumulative causes, both natural and manmade, resulted in a devastating event that affected 52 million people with two million deaths. Following the event many programs were initiated to build new and better dyke systems and institute flood control measures. These were built largely from manual labour of thousands of workers.

Such large-scale floods are not unique to modern times. No doubt all river systems have seen excessive precipitation that resulted in widespread inundation. Where no people were around
to witness the events, they would not be considered as disasters. Today most regions are highly populated meaning that even minor flooding can do significant damage and affect many communities.

Family historians may well find some of their ancestors were affected by floods. Such evidence can be found in newspapers of the day, written up in parish or estate accounts or detailed in many books and other publications.

Monday, 3 July 2017

My Ancestors in Canada in 1867

In a June 27th blog post, Canada’s 150th Genealogy Challenge, on My Genealogy Life, Patricia Greber posted a list of her ancestors who were in Canada at the time of Canada’s Confederation in 1867. She then challenged others to list their ancestors who were also here at the time. It was an interesting exercise, one I not thought of doing before – looking at who was present in one region at one point in time in the past.

Following is a summary of some of my direct ancestors who came to, came through or had been born in Canada when the British North America Act, 1867 was passed.

For reference, Upper Canada colony merged with Lower Canada colony and became Canada West, in the Province of Canada, with the British Act of Union 1840. At the time of Confederation, on July 1st, 1867, each region became provinces on their own – respectively, Ontario and Quebec.

Many of my ancestors came to Canada directly from the British Isles. Gilbert and Margaret (Maitland) Anderson, my 3rd great-grandparents, arrived in Lanark County, Upper Canada from Stirlingshire, Scotland in 1832, with five children. They had another seven, all born in Lanark. From there they moved to Huron County. Gilbert died in Kippen, Huron County in 1871; Margaret also died there in 1886.

My Scottish-born 2nd great-grandfather, Robert Anderson, met his wife, Susan Phillipo, my 2nd great-grandparents, in Brant County, Canada West. They married in Brantford in 1854. Susan’s parents, John and Mary (Manson) Phillipo, also my 3rd great-grandparents, had come over from England in 1838 with three children. They had another four in Brantford. John and Mary died in Brantford in the 1880s.
Robert Anderson ca 1900
Susan (Phillipo) Anderson ca 1900

My great-grandmother, Margaret Mary Anderson, was born in Goderich, Huron County, Canada West, in 1857, as were her ten siblings. The family moved to North Dakota Territory, USA, in 1881. Robert and Susan died and were buried in Ransom County, North Dakota, she in 1905 and he in 1912.
Margaret Mary (Anderson) Thompson ca 1895
Margaret Mary Anderson met Newton Isaac Thompson, my great-grandfather, in North Dakota and they married there in 1884. Newton had been born in Dunnville, Haldimand County, Canada West, in 1859, and had come to the US with several family members in 1879.
Newton Isaac Thompson ca 1895
Newton’s father, John T. Thompson immigrated to Upper Canada from New York around 1835. He met his wife, Elizabeth Emerson, near Thorold, Welland County, where her family lived.  John and Elizabeth, my 2nd great-grandparents, married in 1848, in Niagara County, Canada West. Elizabeth died in the year of Canada’s Confederation, and was buried in Dunnville.

Elizabeth’s parents, George and Mary (Tyler) Emerson, 3rd great-grandparents, had come to Canada in 1836 with four children, including Elizabeth. They had six more in Thorold. Mary died in Thorold in 1845; George lived to 1880 and died in Dunnville in 1880.

The Newton and Margaret Thompson family came back to Canada in 1910, with my grandmother, Carrie Jane Thompson, who had been born in North Dakota in 1889. Their four living children came with them and all settled near Keoma, Alberta. Carrie met my grandfather, James Pearson Shepheard in Keoma, where he had emigrated from England in 1907. They married in Calgary, Alberta in 1914.

At the time of Canada’s Confederation, eleven of my direct ancestors, in three generations, lived in southern Upper Canada, which became the Province of Ontario. The lines eventually connected in North Dakota before coming home to Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

If I had done this summary for my grandchildren, there would be a few more names to add to the list. Perhaps that will be a post for another time.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

DNA Matches

I have had my DNA analyzed at 23andme, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA (Y-DNA). My wife also did hers at 23andme.

Periodically we get emails about matches in their databases. The 23andme list alerted me to several cousins from my mother’s mother’s line. The highest match in terms of percentage of DNA was 11.1% on 31 segments and that was my first cousin who I know very well. Five of the next seven highest are his children.

My maternal haplogroup is H; the chart looks very much like my wife’s with branches spreading out through Europe. The one that runs through central Europe makes sense as I know we have German and likely French connections. Apart from the generalized depiction, it is not much use to me. My paternal haplogroup, R-P311, a subgroup of R-M269 which is the most common haplogroup in western Europe. Again it does not add much to our family history.

I contacted a few of the other cousins on the list and we found more about each other’s branches. I did not learn much more about the line that we did not already know from years of normal family history research, particularly that my aunt did in the 1970s. Nevertheless, having more contact with distant family members was interesting.

There have been no matches on my father’s side on any of the databases.

On my wife’s side, 23andme has provided no family contacts although there have been several individuals who think they are related. The highest shared match is 2.22% on eight segments, so this individual could be a cousin. A message sent to her has not received a reply yet. All the rest of the 1,277 “relatives” have less than 1% match which I think is within the margin of error and likely few are members of any family line. Her haplogroup, H3g, indicates her line came through Europe. One branch goes through the northern part of the continent which fits as all of her ancestors we have traced are from northern Scotland and the Shetland Islands.

From the FamilyTreeDNA database I have no hits. Not that I expected many. I know my male line back pretty far in Devon and I did not think there would necessarily be too many members of my Shepheard family that would have taken a Y-DNA test.

I did persuade a cousin from my mother’s family to take the Y-DNA test (the first cousin I mentioned above). We thought he would be best positioned to be able to reach members of our common 2nd great-grandfather (maternal to me, paternal to him) who had migrated to the US from Germany in the early 1800s. We have no information about where specifically this ancestor came from, when he arrived or who his immediate or ancestral families were. So far we have had no matches for our Miller line that go any further back than we do. My cousin died earlier this year but his daughter and I will continue to monitor his information on FTDNA to see if anyone shows up.

I get regular notices form MyHeritage about matches. There are 85 so far. They give you a range of relationships but they are generally so broad, such as “1st cousin twice removed to 5th cousin” that they seem either not reliable or not meaningful. Only three have more than 1% shared DNA, the largest 1.7%, which may only be within the margin of error and not a true familial match.

The ethnicity description has me all over the place with 97.3% as Europe (that works) and 61.2% of that as British or Irish (that works, too). That’s ok, but Sardinian at 8.3%? South Asian at 1.9%? Or Native American at 0.8%? I have doubts about those.

As I indicated I have sent messages to a few cousins. Some have replied; many have not. A few did not have a valid email address. There have been some messages sent by individuals who have absolutely no connection to our families. I always wonder why people have their DNA analyzed and then do not follow up with possible family members who share a significant amount.

I guess, overall, our experience is limited in learning about other lines of the family. We are still better off with information gleaned from the traditional sources through the normal research methods. But I hope we eventually make a breakthrough with the Millers. It will all have been worth it then.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 5: Tsunamis

I briefly mentioned tsunamis in my last post about earthquakes. They are spawned from major earthquakes that occur around the margins of the oceans, in particular the Pacific where the most active crustal plates are present.

2011 Japan – Earthquake and Tsunami

We were on a cruise ship on 11 March 2011 when a major earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. It did not impact us in any way, other than delaying the ship leaving Manilla harbour, but other family members were worried when they heard the news. Our daughter actually phoned us while we were on a bus coming back from shopping to find out where we were exactly and if we were OK. We relayed the news of the event to other shocked passengers.
A tsunami reaches Miyako City, overtopping seawalls and flooding streets in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the area; source The Atlantic
As it turned out the wave that hit Manilla was no more than a foot or two in height. Other areas around the margins of the Pacific were not so fortunate, particularly the coastline of Japan. The confirmed death toll in Japan is estimated to have been around 16,000 with another 2,500 people missing. An earthquake and tsunami in the same region in 1896 killed 27,000.
Graphic of Honshu Tsunami energy flux and deep water wave heights – image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Scientific American 

2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami

Our family was also sitting on a beach in Cuba when the 2014 Boxing Day (26 December) tsunami destroyed many communities in the Indian Ocean. We wondered then what might have happened if the earthquake and wave had originated somewhere in the Caribbean. Around the Indian Ocean, over a quarter million people perished!
Map of Indian Ocean showing location of the major 9.1-9.3 (Richter Scale) magnitude earthquake on 26 December 2004, death toll and damage from the resulting tsunami (Reuters) 
The district of Banda Aceh in Aceh province, located on Indonesia's Sumatra Island, just days after the earthquake and massive tsunami of 2004; source Australian Geographic

Tsunamis in History: 1607 Bristol Channel, England Earthquake and Tsunami

These are, of course, very recent events and may have little to do with family history research. They do illustrate, however, what might have happened when such events occurred in the past.

A major flood was reported in southwest England in 1607 that is believed by many researchers to have been a tsunami. No technology, of course, existed at the time to record a seismic event, nor was any such event reported. In the absence of any evidence of tectonic activity it is difficult to rationalize the flood being a tsunami. Differing meteorological accounts support either interpretation. Flooded areas extended 250 miles along both sides of the Bristol Channel/Severn Estuary in place spreading inland almost 30 miles. Flood heights reached over 25 feet in some localities with water covering nearly 400 square miles (250,000 acres). Parish registers and other local accounts attest to the damage done by the flood. From a variety of sources and publications it has been suggested that the death toll was between 500 and 2,000.
Depiction of the 1607 flood from a pamphlet printed in London
1755 Lisbon, Portugal Earthquake and Tsunami

On 1 November 1755 Lisbon, Portugal was rocked by an earthquake probably in the magnitude of 8.5 to 9.0 on the Richter scale. Three distinct shocks were occurred over a 10 minute interval. The quake was felt as well 400 miles to the south in North Africa; Algiers was totally destroyed; Tangiers suffered significant damage. Many of Lisbon’s major buildings collapsed, killing thousands under the debris. Fire broke out in many areas gradually spreading until most of the city was engulfed in flame. Over 80% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed.

The earthquake was centred about 120 miles to the southwest of the city, along a major fault in the Earth’s crust. The movement between tectonic plates resulted in a major tsunami that rolled over the coastline, trapping thousands of people that had fled from collapsed and burning buildings. It has been estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people died from a combination of building destruction, fire and flood. The tsunami wave was recorded in many places along the European coastline.
A copper engraving made in 1755 shows the city in ruins and in flames. Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic. Original in: Museu da Cidade, Lisbon.
1960 Chile Earthquake and Tsunami

The 1960 earthquake in Chile was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, at 9.4–9.6 on the moment magnitude scale. It lasted approximately 10 minutes. A resulting tsunami affected southern Chile, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia and the Aleutian Islands.

Waves as high as 82 feet battered the Chilean coast; waves up to 35 feet were recorded 6,200 miles from the epicenter. Estimates of the death toll range from 1,000 to 6,000. About 40 percent of the houses in Valdivia were destroyed and 20,000 people left homeless.
Using historical data, NOAA plotted the maximum amplitude for the tsunami waves generated by the 1960 Chile earthquake.  (Image:  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center for Tsunami Research)
Downtown Hilo, Hawaii, was left devastated by the tsunami. Photo Credit: The Honolulu Advertiser
The main quake on 22 May was preceded and followed by other major events. There was also a volcanic eruption about 150 miles to the southeast two days later that is likely related to the earthquake event.

1964 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami

Readers may remember the earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck near Anchorage causing significant damage and 139 deaths. It was the most powerful earthquake recorded in North America. Several tsunamis were produced, travelling across the Pacific. The largest wave was recorded in Shoup Bay, Alaska, with a height of about 220 feet.
Chaotic condition of the commercial section of the city of Kodiak following inundation by seismic sea waves. The small-boat harbor, which was in left background, contained an estimated 160 crab and salmon fishing boats when the waves struck. Tsunamis washed many vessels into the heart of Kodiak. Photo by U.S. Navy, March 30, 1964. 

Like the earthquakes they are related to, tsunamis have had devastating consequences on communities they have struck throughout history. Family researchers who had ancestors living in coastal areas, particularly in tectonically-active regions might think about whether such events impacted their families.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 4: Earthquakes

Among natural disasters, earthquakes rate right up top as the deadliest. Each year thousands of people are killed or left homeless. Whole families, and by extension family lines have been lost during these events. Current and historical records document the effects and aftermaths of these major intrusions of Mother Nature in the lives of humans.

Since the Earth is in a dynamic state, changes to its surface through such processes as land shifts will continue to happen and any communities or infrastructure, not to mention people it the way will in all likelihood be harmed.

The 1906 earthquake in the San Francisco area, mentioned briefly in my blog post of 18 April 2017, was felt along the entire north coast of California, particularly devastating the urban area of San Francisco where it destroyed 80% of the city. Over 3,000 people died as a result of the quake and its resultant fires.

Major earthquakes are concentrated along the edges of the Earth’s crustal plates where relative movements cause the plates to impinge on each other. California is a region where the North American and Pacific plates slide laterally in opposite directions, grinding against each other and creating major fractures and fault zones. Movement is frequent and never-ending, in a geological sense, resulting in severe tremors and vertical movement.
World map showing major crustal tectonic plates – source United States Geological Survey 
Along coastal areas tsunamis may form as a result of the shifting of the seabed, adding a secondary potential for destruction. These large ocean waves can travel thousands of miles across open water, eventually appearing along distant shorelines with highly destructive force.

There is an informative website that lists earthquakes by period, country and region and also compares the devastation in terms of magnitude, cost of damage and numbers of deaths. These are primarily events that occurred during more recent times and documented in the published literature. There is no doubt similar events occurred in the past centuries before mass media. One major difference is in the perceived human toll. The rapid and large increase in population of the past 150 years has led to more people and communities being caught up in the destruction with many more deaths and greater destruction of infrastructure.

Ancient writings, along with archaeological and geological studies demonstrate the occurrence of destructive earthquakes going back thousands of years many of which affected early communities. Turkey and Syria, for example, lie at the junction of three crustal plates – African, Arabian and Eurasian (Anatolian sub-plate). The region has been the site of numerable major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over millions of years. Records dating back a thousand years describe the destruction from these events. Earthquakes centered near the Greco-Roman city of Antioch, in AD 115 and AD 526 each apparently resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The deadliest earthquake in recorded history occurred in Shaanxi, China in AD 1556 when over 830,000 people were killed.

Besides the well-documented 1906 San Francisco event, there have been many major earthquakes in North America including one in AD 1700 in Cascadia (Washington State & British Columbia). No written records exist from the time period in North America describing the earthquake, however, in Japan there are reports of a tsunami thought to have originated along the North American coast. Tree ring evidence from the Pacific Northwest also show a major disruption in forest growth from flooding of low-lying areas. The earthquake is believed to have been caused by the North American plate slipping over the Juan de Fuca plate with a major shift along the deep subduction zone.
Structure of the Cascadia region and history of major earthquakes – source United States Geological Survey

While earthquakes by themselves may not have been the primary reasons for the migration of people, they certainly have been the cause of the deaths of thousands and the early demise of family lines. Family historians may wish to look at natural disasters such as earthquakes when studying the reasons why ancestors died or moved. Such natural phenomena are often part of the stories about families.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Everyone is Related to Everyone

But what does that really mean? James Tanner commented in a recent blog post (Genealogy is not a competitive sport) about family trees that contain thousands of names. He also made the point that having those large numbers is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

Anyone can add names to their family tree. And many only do just (or only) that, regardless of whether they can justify relationships.

But so what! If you want to go back a few million years we can make a case that we are all related. In reality we can confidently only go back a few hundred years - perhaps 15 generations. Beyond the early part of the 16th century we are stretching credibility by listing ancestors or stating relationships. Few medieval records list the names of people, certainly true for the “common” people from whom most of us descend.

Many family historians want to latch on to the nobility which I think happens because only those few families published any kind of genealogical summaries. How many times have you seen someone’s tree that goes back to Charlemagne? That’s 30 to 40 generations.

Adam Rutherford poked a little fun about about relationships to the King of the Franks in a 24 May 2015 piece in The Guardian: So you’re related to Charlemagne? You and every other living European… He comments: “I am a direct descendent of someone of similar greatness: Charlemagne, Carolingian King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor, the great European conciliator. Quelle surprise!” He goes on to state, “This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then.”

The absence of true records of the greater proportion of the population over the centuries before about AD 1300 compels many people to attach themselves to those who have been named in formal documents. Seemingly, if you can trace a connection to any member of a European royal family then you are a descendant of Charlemagne (see Descendants of Charlemagne).
There is also an assumption that many members of ruling or royal families had scores of illegitimate children who somehow became the ancestors of so many of us. I seriously doubt that is true as there has always been a much larger number of people unrelated to those families. Their descendants would logically still make up most of the population today. Connections to any branch of royalty are often very tentative, perhaps even more like wishful thinking.

If you want to go back to Numero Uno in terms of human evolution then we can probably say we are all related. But that analysis is meaningless for family history studies. DNA may help us find or confirm some familial relationships within a few generations and among some close cousins but it won’t tell the whole story about our families and that is what we are really after, aren’t we?

There should be reservations even using DNA, assuming we could get samples from people as far back as the 9th century. One shares less than 1% of their DNA with their 6th great-grandparents which would make you wonder whether you can even truly demonstrate a blood relationship. The number is not even statistically relevant going back past 20 generations.

Going back to another post by James Tanner (Sourcecentric Genealogy), to conclusively show relationships or connections to past generations, one must work with bona fide historical records. Even some royal families’ trees or publication of them may be more fiction than fact so researchers must go beyond the summaries to find actual church or other records. And, again, any document dated earlier than the 14th century should be used with caution.

So, is everyone related to everyone else? Only in the most general, biological sense but not in any meaningful one with regard to family history!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 3: Drought

Many people researching their families’ history in North America will have ancestors that survived the Dustbowl of the 1930s. Nature’s attack of drought was most concentrated in the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas but it effects were felt in many other regions. One result of the drying up of the farmlands of the plains region was a forced migration of hundreds of thousands of people, most going west to California.
Left – Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas – 18 April 1935 (credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, George E. Marsh); Right – Map of states and counties affected by the Dust Bowl between 1935 and 1938 originally prepared by the Soil Conservation Service. The most severely affected counties are coloured darker red. (Source: Soil Science and Resource Assessment, Resource Assessment Division, United States Department of Agriculture; retrieved 23 May 2017) 

Drought is basically a condition where there is a lack of water resources. According to researchers Gwyneth Cole and Terry Marsh (2006), of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxfordshire, droughts may be caused be due to a deficiency of rainfall (meteorological drought), accumulated deficiencies in runoff or aquifer charge (hydrological drought) or limited water presentg in the soil during the growing season (agricultural drought). The primary parameters of a drought, though, are a lack of precipitation over an extended period of time and affecting a large area.

The drought that affected parts of the Midwest United States in the 1930s is one example that is engraved on recent human memory. Another is the recent arid years in California. This particular drought was predicted by many august individuals and organizations to last a millenium. It was ended, though, as many are, by record rainfall earlier this year. Not to say it cannot or will not happen again. Of course it will. That is the prime characteristic of the natural world – change!

Droughts have been part of natural events for millions of years in all parts of the world. With regard to human history, both recorded and ancient, droughts have played a significant role in the destruction of communities – even whole societies when they played out over long time periods. Many periods of severe drought have been documented in Europe over the last 500 years (Garnier et al, 2015) which resulted in thousands of people leaving their homes to find more hospitable areas.

North America has many examples:
  • ·         The Terminal Classic Drought coincided with the demise of the Mayan civilization between AD 750 and 1050 (Gill, 2000).
  • ·         Between AD 990 and 1300 there were three intense and persistent droughts in the central and southwest part of the US, each lasting decades. They all had severe impacts on natives that resulted in migration of the people and even collapse of their cultures (Jones et al, 1999).
  • ·         Droughts affected early colonists on Roanoke Island (Virginia) between 1587 and 1589 and again between 1606 and 1612 at Jamestown (I wrote about this event in a blog post in September 2016 titled What if…?) The conditions were the driest in the region in 800 years and resulted in high death rates and the abandonment of both habitations.
  • ·         The Civil War Drought (1856-1865) is considered to be the most severe in more modern times, possibly rivalling that of the Medieval period (AD 750-1300).

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorade (photo by Lorax

Family historians may come across evidence that such natural phenomena have affected their own families, at different times and in different regions. Sometimes short-lived and sometimes over extended time periods, drought can, and did have devastating impacts on living conditions.


Cole, G. A. & Marsh, T. J. (2006). An historical analysis of drought in England and Wales. In Climate Variability and Change – Hydrological Impacts (Demuth, S., Gustard, A., Planos, E., Scatena, F. & Servat, E., Eds.). International Association of Hydrological Sciences, publication number 308, pp. 483-489.

Garnier, E., Assimacopoulos, D. & van Lanen, H. W. J. (2015). Historic droughts beyond the modern instrumental records: an analysis of cases in United Kingdom, France, Rhine and Syros. DROUGHT R SPI Technical Report No 35.

Gill, R. B. (2000). The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death. University of New Mexico.

Jones, T. L., Brown, G. M., Raab, L. M., McVickar, J. L., Spaulding, W. G., Kennett, D. J., York, A. & Walker, P. L. (1999). Environmental Imperatives Reconsidered: Demographic Crises in Western North America during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly. Current Anthropology, (40/3), pp. 137-170.