RootsTech 2015

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Genealogical Research Process

First Winter Snow by James Tanner
The first question I would ask is this: what is the goal of genealogical research? Next, what does it mean that a person is a genealogist or family historian? (Note: In this post, as I have in past, I use both the terms "genealogy" and "family history" as synonyms). If we were to conform with the common definition of a genealogist from the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary: "a person who traces or studies the descent of persons or families," most of us would find ourselves severely confined. I would use a much broader definition: "one who researches and investigates, records and organizes family relationships and history." We are certainly not limited to a particular line of descent or, in other words, limited to investigating descendants only. The vast majority of genealogical researchers investigate their ancestry going back in time, although those who trace the descendants of a specific ancestor are quite common.

My questions above go beyond a definition of genealogists or genealogy. What are our goals? If someone handed you your entire documented genealogy going back 12 generations, would you consider your "job" to be finished? Why or why not? I would submit that some of the reasons genealogical research has any attraction at all is because it is open-ended and difficult. From my perspective, if genealogy were easy, I would have no interest in it at all. So making genealogy "easy" is one way to substantially lessen its appeal. My mental analogy is comparing genealogy to mountain climbing. When George Mallory was asked why he want to climb Mount Everest, he responded, "Because its there." (From an interview "Climbing Mount Everest is work for Supermen", The New York Times(18 March 1923). In this sense, I agree with Mallory; I do genealogy because it is there. It is both a mental and a physical challenge. Since I can no longer climb the high physical mountains of my youth, I look to the infinitely higher mountains of genealogy in my old age.

When I climbed a mountain, the goal was easily defined: to reach the top. The goal in being involved in genealogy is more amorphous. It is even more difficult to define when you have reached your goal.

No one is born with the skill of doing research. It is true that we may be born with certain skills that endow us with qualities that make learning the things that are necessary to do research easier. But, nevertheless, research is a skill that must be acquired by practice. However, the analogy is better understood if you view climbing as an activity and the individual mountains as waypoints. I climbed my first mountain when I about seven years old. We were driving by a volcanic cinder cone on the Colorado Plateau called appropriately, Cinder Knoll,  and I asked if I could climb to the top. My father let me go and I ran up to the top of the hill. I can still remember standing on top and look out across the Plateau. I could see for miles. That process of opening up my view of the world changed my life. From that point on, a lot of what I did involved climbing and mountains.

I had a similar experience with genealogy. When I first began to investigate my ancestry, it opened up a new vista. I was transported from being time-bound individual into a part of the seemingly endless stream of family extending back into the past for generations. Just like with mountain climbing, I spent much of my time from that point on investigating my family. In fact, now genealogy has largely replaced mountain climbing. Although, I did spend an afternoon with my brother-in-law last weekend, walking in the canyon and talking about the cliffs and climbing.

There are many skills in mountain climbing. I began the process of really learning those skills when I found a book called the freedom of the hills. Here is the reference to the 50th anniversary edition:

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills : 50th Anniversary 1960-2010. Shrewsbury: Quiller, 2010.
In genealogy, my beginning in really learning the skills of genealogy began with a book. That book was:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.
Of course, my introduction was with a much earlier edition of the book. As this book points out, one of the most prominent activities in doing one's genealogy is that of research. Research is the equivalent of the physical activity involved in climbing.

In high school, or some equivalent educational experience, many of us were introduced to the world of "research" by doing a "research paper." This activity consisted mostly of taking notes on 3" x 5" cards and turning those notes into a short essay on some subject we selected, either from a list supplied by the teacher or from topics we made up and got "approved." As a result, many students (perhaps most) were soured on the whole concept of research. I find that very few people, outside of professions requiring research, voluntarily do research just because it is there.

But both climbing and genealogy share this same activity if we substitute the word "explore" for the word "research." Both involve the systematic investigation of the unknown. When we research our ancestors, we investigate, study, inquire, analyze, scrutinize and review what we do know and then move on to investigate etc. what we do not know with the expectation that we will learn more. As we climb the foothills of genealogy, we keep seeing glimpses of the elusive peak, just beyond view, and we keep going. The goal of genealogy is the process of learning and our increasing understanding of our own lives and how we fit into the stream of history. In this sense, we are climbing a mountain whose top we will never reach.

BYU Family History Technology Workshop

For an interesting introduction to the huge RootsTech 2015 Conference, Brigham Young University is holding a Family History Technology Workshop on the BYU campus the day before the big conference on February 10, 2015. This one day conference is described as:
The Family History Technology Workshop has been held for 15 years, at both BYU and at RootsTech in Salt Lake City. Attendees include researchers, software developers, and professionals, brought together by their shared passion for improving family history technology.
The 2015 Family History Technology Workshop will bring together developers, researchers, technology professionals, and users to discuss the future of family history technology and genealogical research. The workshop will feature developer sessions, lightning talks, technical presentations, panels, and demos to showcase emerging and future technologies.
 The program and schedule will be announced on February 1, 2015. Registration is now open and costs $60 which apparently includes a light breakfast and lunch.

Since I live less than five minutes away from the BYU Convention Center where the conference is being held, I decided to attend. This will make for a lot of blog posting and a longer RootsTech week.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Understanding Real Property Legal Descriptions for Genealogy: Metes and Bounds

English: Broadwater Farm: detail of the 1619 map of the Parish of Tottenham, Middlesex (now in the London Borough of Haringey)
One of the keys to accurate and complete genealogical research is finding the exact location of some event associated with an ancestor. Real property rental or ownership is one very good way to determine an exact location associated with your ancestor's life. Some of the documents you may find that might contain a property description, often referred to as the legal description (or even the "legal"), include:
  • deeds
  • rental or lease agreements
  • probate documents
  • gifts or bequests
  • sales contracts
  • tax documents
  • mortgages
  • deeds of trust
  • land warrants
  • trust documents
  • wills
and many other documents. Historically, land has been described in three different ways:

  • Metes and Bounds
  • Rectangular Survey
  • Subdivision Lot and Block

Sometimes, the differences between these systems are blurred and a legal description may contain elements of two or all three of the methods. The important thing to understand is that the legal description is a method of representing the boundary of the property in words. These legal description methods are not confined to the United States, they are used around the world.

The original method of establishing the boundaries of piece of real property was by reference to physical objects such as trees, rivers, lakes, rocks, or other such objects. For example, a prominent tree or rock outcropping would be chosen as the starting point and then measuring the distance to other physical objects. This type of description is what is meant by the terms "metes and bounds." Here is the definition of the terms from Wikipedia:
  • Metes. The term "metes" refers to a boundary defined by the measurement of each straight run, specified by a distance between the terminal points, and an orientation or direction. A direction may be a simple compass bearing, or a precise orientation determined by accurate survey methods.
  • Bounds. The term "bounds" refers to a more general boundary description, such as along a certain watercourse, a stone wall, an adjoining public road way, or an existing building.
Here is a commonly referred to example of a metes and bounds description:
Commencing at a heap of stones about a stone’s throw from a certain small clump of alders, near a brook running down off from a rather high part of the ridge, thence by a straight line to a certain marked white birch tree about two or three times as far from a jog in the fence going around said ledge and the “Great Swamp” so called, then in a line of said lot in part and in part by another piece of fence which joins onto said line, and by an extension of the general run of said fence to a heap of stones near a surface rock, thence aforesaid to the “Horn” so called and passing around the same aforesaid, as far as possible, to the “Great Bend” so called, and from thence to a squarish sort of jog in another fence so on to a marked black oak tree with stones around it and thence by another straight line in about a contrary direction and somewhere about parallel with the line around by the “Great Swamp” to a stake and stone mounds not far off from an old Indian trail, thence by another straight line on a course diagonally parallel, or nearly so, with “Fox Hollow” run, so called, to a certain marked yellow oak tree on the off side of a knoll with flat stones laid against it, thence after turning around in another direction and by a sloping straight line to a certain heap of stones which is by pacing just 18 rods more from the stump of the big hemlock tree where Philo Blake killed the bear, thence to the corner begun at by two straight lines of about equal length which are to be run in by some skilled and competent surveyor so as to include the area and acreage as herein set forth.
Unfortunately, I cannot find where this particular description originated. It may be made up for illustration purposes, but it is often referred to by those talking about boundary descriptions. The main problem with such descriptions is that the physical objects chosen to describe the property often are destroyed or move over time. For genealogists, trying to locate property from such a description can be a nightmare. Current property boundaries that were historically based on metes and bounds descriptions may have been supplanted by another, more recent survey method. However, even today when the waypoints (Waypoints are sets of coordinates that identify a point in physical space) for a description may have been established by exact survey points, unless the survey is tied into a rectangular survey, the description may still be referred to as a metes and bounds description. 

Early in the European settlement of America, land descriptions might refer to adjacent property owners. If the genealogical researcher expands the scope of his or her inquiry, sometimes the land descriptions can give the names of other members of a the extended family or even the maiden names of married women. 

In subsequent posts, I will talk more about legal descriptions and their impact on genealogical research. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Where did your ancestors live? -- An Introduction to parcel maps

Sanborn Insurance Map of Provo Utah, 1908
My recently post on cadastral mapping points out an interesting fact: local tax records usually indicate where and when people lived in a particular place. Since determining the exact location of an event in an ancestor's life is often crucial in determining his or her identity, any resource that can give an exact location is invaluable.

My early experience with these important records was in researching town records in Rhode Island. I found that most of the documents associated with land or land transfers were in these records. In a quick search on, I find only six collections of digitized town records. So most of these records, at least on, are still available only on microfilm. A search on shows more town related documents, with over 600 falling in this category.

Beginning in 1867, the Sanborn Map Company began publishing insurance maps of cities in the United States. There are various collections online. The map above comes from a collection at the University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library. There are over 660,000 of these maps available, many online. The largest collections of these maps are in the Library of Congress and online. Search for "fire insurance maps" on Google.

The corresponding maps for the rural part of the United States are on "county atlases." These maps can be quite detailed and show individual parcels and ownership. For example, the Map Collection of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum CommissionBureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania State Archives contains Pennsylvania County Atlases and Maps from the 1850s-1870s.  Here is an example showing the individual property owners:

Map #334 - Map of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, 1858 Published by Wm. J. Barker, Philadelphia. J. M. Edsall, Assistant Publisher
You can download these maps and zoom in and see the individual lot owners. 

Another way to approach this research is by searching in the online records maintained by individual counties. These are usually maintained by county recorders and/or assessors. There is a portal to these records maintained by Nationwide Environmental Title Research, LLC. For example, using their Public Records Online Directory, I clicked on Utah, then Utah County and found the website for the Utah County Recorder online. Within seconds, I found the chain of title to my own property in Provo. These records contained a legal description of the entire subdivision development. Here is an example of a legal description from that source:
Legal Description: COM N 40'48"W 1063.12 FT & E 405.72 FT FR SW COR SEC 29, T6S, R3E, SLM; 60.98 FT ALONG ARC OF 402.60 FT RAD CUR L (CHD N 6 DEG 54'33"E 60.92 FT); N 2 DEG 34'12"E 18.48 FT; ALON ARC 300 FT R CUR T L (CHD N 5 DEG 36'08"W 85.29 FT); ALONG ARC 20 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 28 DEG 43'08"E 27.02 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 71 DEG 33'17"E 3.22 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 80 DEG 37'02"E 81.64 FT); N 89 DEG 19'12"E 186.9 FT; S 40'48"E 182.35 FT; N 88 DEG 27'42"E 199.63 FT; S 40'48"E 21.34 FT; S 89 DEG 19'12"W 485.31 FT TO BEG. AREA 1.36 ACRES.
This brings up another issue. In many cases, to interpret the land records you find, you will need to know how to read the legal descriptions and further, how to place those descriptions on a larger map. Very often, the county will include a way to look at the parcels and ownership. Here is an example from the Utah County Parcel Map:

Early land acquisition records in the United States are also a valuable genealogical source. In future posts, I will explain how to read the above legal description and others both recent and historical. I will also explore some of the other detailed land records in the United States dating back to the times of the earliest settlers. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The European Library Online

January: a man warming himself (at a fire)
Dutch collections Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Citing from The European Library website:
What is The European Library?
The European Library is an online portal that offers easy access to the collections of Europe's national libraries and an expanding range of research libraries. It aims to meet the needs of researchers worldwide by providing the ability to:
  • Search over 200 million records
  • Access over 24 million pages of full-text content and more than 7 million digital objects
  • Find a wide range of material, including rare books, manuscripts, images and video
  • Export records to reference management services such as Mendeley and Zotero
  • Download metadata free of charge for data mining and exploitation 
What is the relationship between The European Library and Europeana?
The European Library is the aggregator of digital content from national libraries for Europeana. We deliver digital content from our member libraries on a monthly basis to Europeana. Some human and technical resources are also shared between the two organisations.
The majority of the items in the Library are free to access. Users can cross-search and reuse over 25,188,714 digital items and 165,471,423 bibliographic records.

I find that this type of online resource is virtually unknown among genealogists.

The Pan-European Newspaper Digitalization Projectākās Ziņas/1915/1/23 and The European Library have been involved in an historic cultural project, from the website, here is an explanation of the project;
Our project is:
  • Funded under the European Commission’s CIP 2007 – 2013 programme;
  • A three-year project, running until January 2015;
  • Aggregating 18 million historic newspaper pages for Europeana and The European Library;
  • Converting 10 million newspaper pages to full text. This will help users quickly search for specific articles, people and locations mentioned within the newspaper;
  • Creating a special content viewer to improve online newspaper browsing.Try the prototype;
  • Building tools that will allow professionals to better assess the quality of newspaper digitisation in relation to level of detail, speed and costs.
On the 22-23 January 2015 an international meeting was held in the National Library of Estonia which concluded the pan-European newspaper digitalization project. About 40 specialists of digital libraries from 23 countries were expected to participate. Here is an outline of what the project accomplished from the National Library of Estonia:
As part of the Europeana Newspapers project, The European Library developed a historic newspapers browser that enables users to perform full-text searches in millions of historic newspaper pages. The browser contains around 30 million newspaper pages from 25 libraries in 23 European countries. Users are able to search:
  • full text of more than 10 million historic newspaper pages
  • named entity recognition in Dutch, German and French to enable searches of names of people and geographic places
  • metadata records of over 20 million historic newspaper pages.
You can see the results of the project on The European Library's Historic Newspaper Browser.

I am continually amazed at the huge number of digitalization projects going on around the world almost continually.

Don't Ignore Migration Patterns and Routes

Areas with greatest proportion of reported Scotch-Irish ancestry
One of the most ignored areas of genealogical research is the issue of migration routes. All too often I will see an online family tree record with a person listed as living in a certain location and then moving to another location that does not make any sense. Usually, it turns out that the second person is in fact a different person. If you find information about an ancestor that runs counter to the normal migration pattern, this is an invitation to do more intensive research into the history surrounding the family.

In the map above, you can see the concentrations of Scotch-Irish immigration in the United States. Contrast this with following map of Lithuanian immigrants:

Distribution of Lithuanian Americans according to the 2000 census.
Of course, maps such as these do not tell the entire story. Here is a description of the distribution of Lithuanian immigrants from Wikipedia:
Chicago, Illinois, is home to the second largest population of Lithuanians in the world, and the old "Lithuanian Downtown" in Bridgeport was once the center of Lithuanian political activity for the whole United States. Another large Lithuanian community can be found in the Coal Region of northeastern Pennsylvania, particularly in Schuylkill County where the small borough of New Philadelphia has the largest percentage of Lithuanian Americans (20.8%) in the United States. There is also a large community of Lithuanian descent in the coal mining regions of Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia Panhandle and Northeastern Ohio tri-state area. Grand County, Colorado's Lithuanian-American community has the unusual distinction in that it is the only sizable immigrant population in an otherwise fairly homogeneous population in a rural, mountainous community. There is also a small but vibrant Lithuanian community in Presque Isle, Maine. Many Lithuanian refugees settled in Southern California after World War II; they constitute a community in Los Angeles.
To begin to understand how populations move both across international boundaries and inside specific countries, it is necessary to do both general and very specific historical research. But the real question is how is this going to help me find my ancestors? Inexperienced genealogists focus on names and dates. As we gain experience, we expand our searches to include the social, political and economic backgrounds of our ancestor's surroundings.

Since people tend to congregate into areas that have similar social, economic, racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. As we learn about and analyze these factors, we can explain seemingly random movements.  For example, why did I move from Mesa, Arizona with a high concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Provo, Utah, another place with a high concentration of members of the same Church? The more you know about my background and values, the easier it would be to understand the move.

If that question does not seem important to you, then you are missing one of the most basic of genealogical research issues; the forces behind the movements of your ancestors. Those forces can be said to push people to move and also pull them. For example, one branch of my family came from Northern Ireland. The ancestor that immigrated with his family was William Linton (b. 1799 in Northern Ireland, d. 1851 in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) From the dates and places where his children were born, I can determine that he moved from Northern Ireland to New Brunswick, Canada in about 1835. Why then? Even a very modest investigation into the history of Ireland in the 1800s will give one very good answer: from 1801, Ireland had been on the verge of disaster. Here is a brief description of the conditions from Wikipedia: Great Famine (Ireland):
Starting in 1801, Ireland had been directly governed, under the Act of Union, as part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, both of whom were appointed by the British government. Ireland sent 105 members of parliament to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, and Irish representative peers elected 28 of their own number to sit for life in the House of Lords. Between 1832 and 1859, 70% of Irish representatives were landowners or the sons of landowners.[10] 
In the 40 years that followed the union, successive British governments grappled with the problems of governing a country which had, as Benjamin Disraeli put it in 1844, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world."[11] One historian calculated that between 1801 and 1845, there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland and that "without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."[12] (footnotes left in on purpose).
 Could there have been better reasons for moving to America?

On the other hand, migrants may be pulled to a new land. Examples in the United States are numerous; the 1849 gold rush to California, the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 and many other examples. Many of my own ancestors came to America because they joined the LDS Church.

If you are not aware of the factors that affected your ancestors' movements, you will lose them in the shuffle. Many times, when searching for the next ancestor, the researcher ignores the factors that placed the family where it was. We always point out that we begin the search for an immigrant in the country of arrival, but we always need to look to the reasons that made the immigrant move in the first place.