Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 8: Volcanoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the many that resulted in major death tolls are:
Death Toll
Mount Tambora
Mount Pelée
Nevado del Ruiz
Mount Unzen

Laki, Iceland

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


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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Canadian Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

If all the Devon baptisms were on FMP!

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

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

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

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

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

Terry’s comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 7: Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Organizing and Storing Your Family History Data – My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Who's living with who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Finding Birth Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.