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.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Obituaries – Who should be listed?

My daughter asked my opinion about an obituary for the father of a friend of hers recently. She commented on how much information there was in that particular piece that, in her view, could be helpful for identity theft.

In the one she cited, the names of the deceased’s parents, sister and children were shown, as well as those of his grandchildren and a nephew. Included were married names and current places of residence. Even the name of an ex-husband of his daughter was there, in order to properly identify two of the man’s grandchildren.


Now this is not unusual. Most of us regularly read obituaries that have names of extended family members. Unfortunately we don’t think about what the consequences might be in publishing all of this information. My daughter thought this was “identity overshare.”

I am sure we are all aware that when addresses or at least the names of communities are shown, thieves might well target the residents while they are attending a funeral. More serious is listing full names, particularly of minor children. It won’t take much searching to find more data on these people with the possibility of someone using their names in fraudulent activities. The old security standby of using a mother’s maiden name is now frowned upon as they are usually well displayed on many obituaries.

As genealogists we prize published obituaries as places where information on many now deceased family members can be found. I will write about a good example of this in my next blog post. Having access in one place to all those relationships described in the second paragraph above assists us in constructing a comprehensive family tree. We don’t think too much about the privacy or security issues, mainly because we are usually dealing with people who, along with their direct survivors, have long since passed.

It’s a different world today, though, when rogue elements of our society use all manner of media to search for private information about individuals for their own unlawful means. We all need to take precautions with personal information about ourselves and our families and that includes the publishing of names and addresses, especially without the approval of those other family members.
 
From Albuquerque Journal - 4 October 2013
While people might wish to show how much the deceased will be missed by a large family, I think care should be taken not to give the general public inadvertent access to a large family tree. Information about children should certainly not be published without the full approval of their parents. (The same applies to social media and blogs, of course.)

I wonder if funeral directors, who mostly control or even write obituaries, advise their clients about the potential for misuse of information they publish.


I surmise that, if my daughter has anything to say about it, she will write my story as a much shorter than normal, such as: “Wayne came, Wayne saw, Wayne died!” 

Monday, 14 August 2017

Family History in the making…and seen Live!

In our concentration with the past, family historians often forget how history is being made today. This highly technological world allows us to experience events as they happen many of which affect our own families.

We had the great pleasure of seeing our granddaughter dance at a prestigious ballet competition in Hong Kong this past week – LIVE! This was the Asian Grand Prix where over 300 young people came together from all over the world to show their excellence in ballet.


Not only could we watch them all dance we got to experience the joy of our granddaughter when she was awarded the Bronze Medal in her age category of 13 to 14 year-olds.

This is the age of Facebook, live streaming, Skype and WeChat, terms completely unknown to our parents (and barely understandable by many people my age). From the comfort of our living room in Calgary, Canada we saw the dance performances in Hong Kong, over 6,500 miles away and 14 hours ahead, in Real Time! We got to see and share this piece of family history happen with many other family members, in their own homes, at the same time.

Our parents, who raised their families when home television was developing, would have appreciated seeing such an event as it was happening. They understood live broadcasts even in the 1950s. I remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, transmitted via undersea cables. That was a day that changed television history itself. Since that time we have witnessed thousands of similar major historical events unfold as they occurred in all parts of the globe.

I remember when my parents were able to come out to my schools and other venues when I received awards and other certificates of recognition, as well as when I performed in various concerts. These were important times of sharing experiences. My grandparents could never make it because they lived so far away. Copies of what photos that might have been taken were mailed to them instead along with those old fashioned letters people used to write.

We are way past letters, even telephones. Messages are transmitted instantly via electronic means (with all their spelling, grammar, punctuation and construction errors and often without thought given to how the words might be received).

It does give one pause to think how such immediate communication might be viewed by ancestors from several generations back. There were times when news from one family member to another might take weeks to travel from place to place – months if they lived across an ocean from each other. The telegraph allowed short notes to be sent between localities that could then be delivered by hand to recipients. It was slow, expensive and did not allow the exchange of much news.

The late 19th century saw telephone usage expand around the globe although many families could not avail themselves of the technology, again because of cost and infrastructure. Eventually phones were everywhere which must have affected letter-writing activities.

Today we have “smart phones” – instruments capable of exchanging voices, written communications, images, videos and all manner of other data. We are able to visit with family and experience their joy and achievement no matter where they are in the world. Our gadgets can do complex calculations as well as entertain us with the latest movies. I am quite sure my 6th great-grandparents, living in the 18th century, would never have been able to even comprehend the idea.

These modern tools allow us to search historical records quickly and easily as we follow our genealogical research leads. Just as importantly they let us see for ourselves what our children and grandchildren are doing and saying. And they get to share important moments in their lives with some of their ancestors (us) like no generation has ever been able to do.

So for us to be able to live stream a dance competition – even though it was at 2:00 in the morning – was very exciting. We got to see family history being made live.



Wouldn’t it be neat if we could look back a few centuries and see in a similar fashion how our ancestors’ lives were unfolding and share in their moments of achievement?

Monday, 7 August 2017

Our Common Immigrant Origins

We all descend from immigrants!

That’s not really an astounding or radical viewpoint. Humans have migrated to areas where they could find better conditions to live and survive since there were humans. Whatever we might think in North America, everyone here descends from someone who moved here, whether during last year or in the last 15,000 years.

I am a second generation Canadian. My ancestors, not so far back, were immigrants. I am just starting to learn why they packed up and moved themselves and, in many cases, their entire families to North America.

Most of us don’t usually think of English-speaking people (or early French-speaking people in Canada) as immigrants but they were – every bit as much as more recent additions to our national mosaic of Asians, Africans or other Europeans. We reserve that distinction to those displaced by wars or Mother Nature. Some of them we have called them refugees.

When I was growing up, people coming to Canada were mainly from Eastern Europe, parts of which had been devastated by a long and dirty war. Many were fleeing despotic, primarily Communist regimes set up following the conflict and that inflicted even more calamity. The migrants sought safety, opportunity and freedom.

Recent arrivals to Canada and the US in the 1950s were often given unflattering labels, first because they did not speak the common language of the regions they settled in, but also, I suspect, from locals’ fear about how their communities might change and whether jobs would be lost to those who might work for less. Or maybe just from plain bigotry.

What we refer to as aboriginal groups – or First Nations in Canada – did not actually originate in the Americas either. They migrated from Asia when conditions permitted during the last major Ice Age. That only makes their ancestors immigrants of a much earlier period, not different or better. In many parts of the New World, existing societies were demolished by invaders, largely from Europe, who came much later.

Of course present-day Europeans also descend from immigrants who came into the region from Southwest Asia and Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, as the climate and physical environment of those regions changed for the worse. East Asians also originated in Africa.


Within Europe there has also been a great deal of internal migration during the past few thousand years again, when degradation of habitat necessitated moves. The event called the Migration Period or the Barbarian Invasion occurred when climate changed from warm (Roman Climate Optimum) to cold (Dark Ages Cold Period).


Some newcomers made uneasy peace with groups that were inhabitants of the lands wanted for settlement; most, though, took the areas by force. That’s not unusual in terms of human history. There have always been conflicts between migrants and inhabitants going back thousands of years. Perhaps distrust of people coming later is ingrained in our DNA, as part of a survival mechanism. Or maybe it’s just that fear factor humans seem to have in abundance. Such attitudes are certainly part of many cultures around the world. These days, established citizens use the ruse that newly arrived groups will be a burden on social programs.

The facts are clear for North America in particular, though – incoming groups of people have always added to the culture, wealth and development of regions in which they have settled.


Family history studies, besides incorporating analyses of genetic relationships, are really the study of immigration – when did people move, why did they move, where did they go, what method of travel did they employ and how long did they stay. While this is more apropos for the Americas or Australia, even local regions in Europe share similar stories as people migrated within their country of origin to places where work was more plentiful and life might be better.


So – we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The only distinction between us in that regard is when our forebears arrived in the places where we live.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Stories from people I know

We don’t often think about the stories our contemporaries might share when we are looking at our genealogical research. But people my age have lived long enough to have heard about and possibly been around when important historical events happened, as well as those that touched their own families. Family history is not only about who was alive hundreds of years ago but also about who we have been in contact with during our own lifetimes.

How often have you seen or heard the phrase, “Where were you when….?”

You may remember details of things that are now reported as important historical events, such as the shooting of a US President, a war fought in some far off place in the world or the births of future Kings. Such events may have had some personal impact on a member of your family – or yourself. Perhaps you or someone close to you was in the wrong place when a major natural disaster occurred (see my previous blog posts about Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes). Maybe a special trip or birthday comes to mind because it happened at the same time as an important and newsworthy occasion.

I was reminded of this aspect when a friend asked if I had seen a piece he published recently in The Devon Family Historian (May 2017 issue). It was titled Memories: A Country Boy. Alick Lavers related his experience as a small boy of the bombing of Plymouth during the early years of the WWII and, in particular, when a German plane crashed in the countryside on 24 November 1941 not far from where he lived.


It is a poignant story, one that still lives vividly in his personal memories. I recommend reading the piece if you can (If you send me your email address in the comments section, I will forward you a copy. I won’t publish your email contact details.). His article serves as an example that we do not always need to look in books or newspapers for information about events and how they impacted people. Sometimes we can just ask our friends and relatives. Many of them are now of similar (advanced) age as ourselves.

I do confess that I have not written much about my own life and those people I came in contact with. To my descendants, my personal recollections and story will, of course,be part of their family history. Perhaps this blog post might be a start in that direction, if I can remember what happened decades ago. Good thing I have photos and many documents that go back through several generations.

When recording your family’s history, remember to contact friends and relatives to see what they remember about significant events within your and their living memory as well as what they may have been told by their parents.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Is there a hero in your family tree?

I use the word here generically – that is, it may be equally applied to either gender.

We tend to associate the term hero with courage in battles – to individuals who show exceptional bravery in saving others from harm. But my Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines the word primarily as: a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc. There is no mention of fighting, combat or conflict of any kind. So what really defines someone as a hero?
 
More than 3,500 Canadian soldiers (all of them heroes) died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. There is always a flower blooming next to every headstone, no matter how remote a corner of the site it may be located. Vimy graves: Paul Kinsman blogsite; Vimy trench image: Vimy Foundation webpage; Vimy monument image: Reflections on Canadian History webpage
In their search of military records, many genealogists may find individuals in their families who were awarded medals for their acts under fire during the many wars in which countries and their people were engaged in over the centuries. We make great efforts to remember these individuals in monuments and in naming of public buildings, parks or streets.

I live in an area of Calgary that was part of a military base during the last two great wars. Street names include descriptions of military significance, such as: Valour Circle, Victoria Cross Boulevard and Burma Star Road. This is not surprising given the area’s history but it tends to reinforce our perception of heroes as being connected to armed forces activities of the past, not to everyday life.

Families can and do have other people who must be considered heroes:
·         a physician who administers to a community even at his own personal risk from contagions
·         a single mother whose focuses her entire life on the well-being of her children;
·         a wife or husband who dedicates her/his declining years to ensuring that her/his partner does not suffer unreasonably from a debilitating health problem
·         a volunteer for a local or foreign charitable organization who offers time and talents to help others with lessor means or opportunities
·         an individual who moves to a far-off, or sometimes not-so-far-off location in order to build a better future for their present or future families (sometimes enduring great physical hardship and deprivation in the process)
·         a relative who takes in and takes care of children of a sibling who may have fallen on hard times
·         an individual who dedicates themselves to their community, acting as a volunteer or elected official but who assists those in need through charitable efforts or his wealth
·         a person who, in spite of his own mental or physical limitations brings joy and inspiration to others by their selfless acts

These kinds of people are true, every-day heroes! They certainly fall under that category of noble deeds.

I have found a few people in my family tree that conform to some of the descriptions I have just listed. I will also say that I have not found any that were awarded medals for bravery under fire in any battle although there were many who enlisted when wars came along and served with honour and distinction.

Engaging in the study of family histories hopefully means learning about the activities in which our ancestors took part. These are not part of the dates and places we normally search for, except for how that information might relate to historical events. We always hope we will find something written directly by family members that will comment on their lives and families. Letters are rarely preserved, even those written by our closest ancestors. Parish records might contain snippets about people from which we can discern details of their actual experiences or relationships.

One example I discovered in my genealogical research was a minister who spent weeks assisting residents in Plympton St. Mary parish in coping with a cholera epidemic which spread primarily through the urban community beginning in July in 1832. Reverend William Isaac Coppard later wrote a book on his experiences, laying out the causes of the spread of disease and the methods he and local health officials devised to treat the afflicted. The book is title Cottage Scenes During The Cholera: Being extracts from a diary written in July and August, 1832, originally published by a number of firms in 1848. The book is available in reprint and scanned versions from several sources but is also available for free download from Google books. Rev. Coppard details his time spent in the homes of families who contracted the disease from notes he kept during the epidemic


Apart from military options, family historians might ask themselves what other heroic deeds have been be unearthed in constructing their family trees.

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.” (DisasterHistory.org)
 
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.