Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Hiding Our Ancestors

Last week genealogy made the mainstream news regarding allegations that actor Ben Affleck pressured the PBS genealogy television show Finding Your Roots into overlooking an ancestor who owned slaves.

I don't have any slave-owning ancestors, as the first of my immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. in 1865.  If anything, many of my European farmer ancestors were likely serfs, at the bottom of the social ladder.

Still, there are many people in my family tree that are embarrassing or worse.  But they are my kin.  People are people, some are good and some not so good.  I cannot claim credit for their accomplishments and I am not responsible for their sins.

So I won't hide any of my tree as I continue to explain my family history. I just want to find out whatever I can about the truth.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Perils of Online Family Trees

I remember when I first got active again with Ancestry.com well over a decade ago.  I began working on my tree, and that of my wife Cynthia, late one night at work, and I was mesmerized by all of the little shaky leaves that kept popping up. It was so easy to just click, click, click and add new people to the tree. Before I knew it, I had hundreds of people in the trees, particularly Cynthia's.

The next day I looked at Cynthia's new online tree and I realized that some things didn't quite add up. It looked like fathers and sons with the same name had wives with the same names. Birth dates made no sense. I had fallen prey to the dark side of online trees - terribly bad information.

I started trying to correct the mistakes, but I had a busy life. I soon discovered that other people were copying from my mistakes and including them into their own trees. I received an e-mail from someone flagging a mistake that I had already changed weeks earlier. It was a mess.

As a newbie, I had no idea of the formal methods of genealogy, but as a scientist and lawyer, I had some good ideas of how the rules of logic might apply.  As I began to think critically about my online trees, I realized how much faulty logic I had applied.

For example, I assumed that someone who had a lot of details that I didn't know and which weren't supported by cited evidence must be based upon some undisclosed personal knowledge. For example, I know my own birthday and wedding information, and until recently none of that was available online.  Being a bit shy about contacting strangers, I just assumed the validity of such information without corroborating evidence.

After all, I was just trying to figure out who my ancestors were, and not to go to court to claim some lost inheritance.  If I had a detail or two unverified or just flat out wrong, what was the harm in it?

As I began to study genealogy, to attend meetings and conferences, to read periodicals, I learned just how easy it was to graft the wrong people onto a family tree, as evidenced in my recent post about Hillary Clinton's online family trees. I also learned about important tools, like the Genealogical Proof Standard, which help to keep research rigorous. (I will discuss those more in future posts.)

I now look upon those enticing, shaking leaves with skepticism. Are they giving me a useful hint, or are they like the snake in the Garden, trying to tempt me with the promise of forbidden knowledge?  Each such leaf has great potential value, but must be viewed with caution.

So why even bother with these trees? I will discuss that question next time.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

James Brady (1878-1918) - The Path Starts at the Grave

I began searching for James Brady using a document that my mother had from her father George's papers: an order for a grave marker for his parents' plot, created before his mother Alice's death.

As you can see, it lists five people: William (1905-1905), Thomas (1854-1908), Rose (1916-1918), James (1878-1918) and Alice (1882-).

My mother said that she had been told that her grandfather James had died during the Influenza outbreak in 1918, which matched the information on James. We knew that his wife was Alice. But who were William, Thomas and Rose?

William and Rose both died while very young, and since they were buried in the same plot with James and Alice, I suspected that they were their children, but I would later search for records of their births and deaths to confirm that information.

Thomas was of the right age to be either James' father or uncle. I doubted that any further distant relation would be buried with the family.

The fact that James had a father named Thomas was soon confirmed by James' 1918 death certificate, which I obtained directly by purchasing a copy from the New York City Archives (I would later find the same information available online).

James' death certificate says that he died of pneumonia at Fordham Hospital on 13 Oct 1918, that he was a 40 year old married white male engineer who lived at 218th St. Harlem River. That information appears to be spot on.

It says that his father was Thomas Brady and mother was Catherine McHugh, and both were born in Ireland.  Only some of that information is correct - the information on his mother is a bit off.

It also says that he lived his entire life in New York.  That is completely untrue.

Death certificates are tricky sources of information, as they are often filled out by the hospital, are never reported by the person they are about (who is dead, after all), and rely for information received from distraught family members who may not understand all of the information that they are being asked.  They are reliable about things like cause, date and location of death and less so about things like age at death, parentage, etc.

Still, there were plenty of new clues to follow, and I will write more about that later.

Good Samaritan with Genealogical Tools Gets Front Page Newspaper Story

The San Francisco Chronicle today (18 Apr 2015) had a front page story about a woman's quest to locate the owners of a long lost medal.

Jill Caroll found the 108 year old medal in an antique suitcase that she bought, and with all of the instincts of a natural-born genealogist, she eventually tracked down the granddaughter of the original recipient of the medal, She used resources like the National Archives and the website Find A Grave.com to locate the original owner and locate ancestors.

The story ends with:

"Carroll said she would have to find herself another hobby now. “Something will come up,” she said."

She has already shown that she can use the tools of the genealogist, and is fascinated by searching for missing relationships. I'd recommend that she devote herself to genealogy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

James Brady (1878-1918) - Starting Down A Long, Long Path

This handsome gentleman is my great-grandfather, James Brady. He lived a fairly short life, dying in New York at the age of 40 during the influenza epidemic on 13 Oct 1918. His death came two days before that of his daughter, Rose Brady, who died just a few days short of 22 months old. They were buried in the same coffin at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Tracing his life story has been a bit difficult, for two reasons.

First, he lied about where he was born. In every document that he filed with the government, he said he was born in Rhode Island. The truth is far more interesting, and about 3,200 miles away from there. He was actually an alien pretending to be a United States citizen.

The second reason is even more fascinating. He lived in a number of odd places, including on a boat. Yes, on a boat, with a wife and eight children, including my grandfather.

Some proof is found in the 1910 U.S. Census below:

He worked as a hoisting engineer, and he lived on a boat moored in the Harlem River around W. 219th Street. When I found this evidence, my mother was amazed because she heard stories about him living on a boat, and I think she was a bit skeptical.

I have actually been able to put together a good deal of information about his life, and that of his mother Margaret and his sister Margaret, but information about his father, Thomas Brady, and his brothers Thomas and Joseph, is far more scarce.

I will post more about their story in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ancestry DNA to Share (Mis)Information With Medical Research Companies

Few things ever truly surprise me. This shouldn't have, but it did:

Huffington Post reports that Ancestry.com is quietly moving into the lucrative medical data-mining business.

This was always 23andMe's business model, but I didn't realize that Ancestry.com would try to move into this market so soon, especially given how they treat their genetic genealogy customers.

Let me explain more fully.

23andMe is a relative of Google (the family history of the companies is its own interesting drama), and always appeared to be more of a DNA data-mining venture with genetic genealogy tacked on as a teaser. Still, they always gave lots of tools to users to access their data, compare chromosomes to those willing to share them, etc.

Ancestry.com is primarily a family tree research company which has a DNA arm. They do not give users access to tools like chromosome browsers, viewing such tools as niche gizmos that will confuse their average user and which will cause more confusion (i.e., require more customer support) than tangible benefit to them.

Recently, they have begun down a controversial path of focusing on what they call DNA Circles, which their computers create by comparing family trees of people with autosomal DNA matches and hypothesizing that they are possibly related.

They also appear to be combining information from all available trees to create a sort of homogenized blended bio for each person, and use some sort of lateral networking algorithm for assigning potential ancestors.

Given that misinformation seems to propagate on Ancestry.com faster than correct information, this is a recipe for disaster (Roberta Estes describes some problems with these enhancements on her blog).

This brings me back to the article on Ancestry.com as a medical research company. The money quote for me is that "since it has been collecting ancestral data about its users for decades, it knows health information not just about its users, but about their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents."

This is simply untrue. Ancestry.com knows about people it suspects are the users' families, based upon sometimes highly questionable user-supplied genealogical data.  The temptation to click those shaky leaves and just add them to a tree has led many, many a hobbyist astray.

In the past, the worst thing about the unreliability of online trees has been that casual hobbyists or beginners might be led astray.  Now that we are discussing these trees as though they were reliable population information for medical research, the downside of those misshapen trees could have more dire consequences. 

I certainly hope that the medical researchers are less susceptible to marketing hype than the public has been.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hilary Clinton's Online Family Trees Need Pruning

I am going to be posting soon about my own experiences with grafting unwanted branches onto online family trees, but this article by Megan Smolenyak about the problems with online information about Hilary Rodham Clinton's family tree really highlights how misinformation can become universal in online family trees.

It is a short, painful reminder to be skeptical of information gleaned from online trees.

Looking forward to Genealogy Jamboree 2015!

I had a great time in Burbank at Genealogy Jamboree 2013, put on by the Southern California Genealogical Society. Last year I didn't reserve my room in time and the hotel overbooked, and so I decided that it was a good year to save the money and go to a different event.

I didn't make the same mistake this year. I booked my room for Genealogy Jamboree 2015 as soon as the block was announced, and I have all of my plans made.

I am headed in Wednesday night so I can be there bright and early for the Genetic Genealogy Day Plus! on Thursday. I am leaving Saturday night and skipping Sunday for three reasons: (1) to save a little money; (2) I will be brain dead by Sunday anyway; and (3) I have a busy day planned for Monday.

For the past week or so they have been revising the schedule, I assume to move all of the programs that I want to attend to Sunday, now that I am locked into the travel plans.

Last time around I tweeted using the official hashtag and they displayed it on a monitor, which was cool, so I will likely do so again but with the full blog treatment.  I will try to post a picture of them showing the tweet, which I can do as a sort of recursive thing where the picture is of the link to the picture.

This year I have also taken off the few days leading up to the conference, with the intention of letting me get organized. Maybe it will work.

A Little About Me

This is a genealogy blog, and hence, I have some interest in genealogy. But other than the obvious fact that I am blogging about this, why should you read anything that I write about this stuff? Just who is this person behind the screen?

I am Vicky Kolakowski, a fairly typical fifty-something transgender judge married to another woman (OK, I admit that I am typical by virtue of being the only one in that category), with no children other than the type with four paws.

I have been interested in my family history since I was a teenager, but back in the dawn of pre-Internet history, finding information was very difficult. I knew the names, roughly, of most of my great grandparents and that was it. Six of the eight of them were immigrants from places now inside of Poland, and the other two were clearly of Irish ancestry but were otherwise mysterious.

I did very little with my interest in genealogy until the 1990s, when the first versions of family tree maker appeared, along with CD-ROMs of old records. Then in the early 2000s I signed up for Ancestry.com and started putting my family tree information online, as well as that of my wife, Cynthia. However, I was very busy with a number of things, and didn't devote much energy into my genealogy hobby.

That all changed when I was sworn in as a judge in 2011. I suddenly had a very stable situation with lots of vacation time. At the same time, my mother began to worry that as her older cousins began to pass, the last folk who talked to our immigrant ancestors were going to the grave with all of the memories, all of the information needed to locate these ancestors.

So I gathered what little information we had, and began hunting. And those pesky ancestors kept hiding. I have found some of them, but others continue to elude me. Still, I hunt, with the hope that I will find the clues that I need.