How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

This post takes a little journey to get to the point…but we think it’s worth the trip, and it should help demonstrate the power of old property records. In case you missed it, we’re building off of last week’s review of DeedMapper (Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research)

Deed Books are a great tool to move forward some of your most stubborn research questions, and there is a great deal of data in them, but without a tool like DeedMapper you’re likely not going to get the full picture of what’s found in them!

On Michael’s paternal line, the Tradewell’s are one of the two brickwalls left on that side of the tree…which is all the more ironic because the matriarch of family history research on that line was Myra (Tradewell) Morse (1870-1962). In all of her genealogy notes, and DAR applications, and family history presentations she never recorded the name of her Great Grandfather…and thus we have a brick wall.

About a year and a half ago we wrote about discovering formal genealogical “Research Reports” (Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!) and started drafting them for our toughest cases. Of course, the Tradewell line was the first subject. We knew that James B Tradewell is our 4x GGF and that he arrived in Racine County, Wisconsin Territory ca. 1844, where he and his wife Catherine lived until their deaths. We also knew that there was an Ephraim Tradewell, and his wife Marina, also arrived in Racine County around 1844, and that both men listed New York as their birth location. A little research showed that there were a James B and Ephraim Tradewell in Schoharie County, New York for the 1820, 1830, and 1840 U.S. Census but each disappeared after that and no further records were found for them there.

We wrote an “Analysis and Research Plan” for them, and it laid out the following questions we’d hoped to answer:

  • Were the James B and Ephraim Tradewell in Wisconsin from after 1844 the same men as those listed in the 1820-1840 U.S. Census in Schoharie County, New York?
  • Were they related, and/or did they even know each other?
  • Who was each of their fathers, and was either of those persons the brickwall 5x GGF?

Reviewing the Schoharie County Deed Books for 1797-1850 gave us some of the answers, and DeedMapper filled in a major piece of the puzzle.

Were the Wisconsin Tradewells the same as the New York Tradewells?

The answer is now a proven yes! Deeds were usually recorded with the Husband as the only purchaser, but almost always the wife is listed when a property is sold. In fact, every Deed we reviewed where we know we had an ancestor selling property, the wife isn’t just listed, there’s a statement from the County Clerk that recorded the deed that the wife was taken aside out of the presence of her husband to confirm she was willingly agreeing to the transaction. Besides making us wonder if any wife EVER felt empowered enough to say “no”, several sales gave us the names of the New York Tradewell’s wives: James B Tradewell was married to Catherine (Edwards) Tradewell, and Ephraim was married to Marina Tradewell. A perfect match!

We also saw a clean break in New York, with the last Tradewell land transaction completed in the summer of 1842, and the first Wisconsin transaction being conducted in 1844.

Were James and Ephraim related, and/or did they even know each other?

We still do not know if they were related, but we know they were likely very close and in fact lived next to each other…and we never would have known that without DeedMaker. Just reviewing the Deed Books, we learned that they were involved in one land transaction that indicates they were likely in a close relationship. On 7 April 1838 James sold Lot #7 of “Tradewell’s Tavern Stand” in Gilboa, NY to Ephraim for $200. Two weeks later, on 21 April 1838 Ephraim sold the same property to Sidney Tuttle for $200. We’re not sure exactly what was going on there, but it’s very likely there was coordination between the men for this to occur.

But what really sold us on DeedMapper, was what happened when we mapped all the plots we discovered in the 1797-1845 Deed Books. The biggest breakthrough came when we first mapped two properties, with no common points in their Legal Description, and they clearly fit together. Without sharing Metes & Bounds points in the description (like a Willow Tree), there’s no easy way to determine how they relate, but when you map them visually you can see them like jigsaw puzzle pieces and get a great feeling of location for the land.

Once we had those two properties mapped (both were owned by James B Tradewell and recorded in 1806), we drew another plot owned by Ephraim (recorded 1834) and we immediately knew they lived together as neighbors with an adjoining property line.

Here is the first Legal Description for James’ largest plot:

Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E. and runs thence south 15 degrees east 10 chains and 60 links, thence East 25 chains, thence north 21 degrees 30 minutes east 32 Chains, thence north 10 chains 50 links, thence west 17 chains and 50 links to the Schoharie creek, thence along said creek to the place of beginning containing 117 acres of land be the same more or less.

And here is the Legal Description for Ephraim’s plot:

Beginning at a hemlock sapling on the East side of Schoharie Creek marked on 4 sides with 3 notches and a blaze on the North side B.H, on the South side I.D. and runs thence North 30 degrees East 8 chains, thence, North 24 degrees West 12 chains, thence, due West 25 chains, thence, North 15 West 10 chains 60 links, thence, South 41 degrees West 12 chains to the west side of said creek, thence, South 2 degrees West 5 chains 75 links, hence, North 52 degrees East 2 chains, thence South 62 degrees East 6 chains to the North East side of said creek, thence, up said creek to the place of beginning.

These two plots, recorded almost 30 years apart, and showing no common marker other than Schoharie Creek, when drawn, revealed just how closely these men lived:

Tradewell Map
The pink lines are the boundries of Ephraim Tradewell’s property, the black lines are James B Tradewell’s two plots. (Note: The maps don’t fit perfectly the boundary lines, because they specifically reference the edge of a creek that no longer exists and likely changed frequently after floods, etc.)

The beauty of DeedMapper is that this is first time we worked with Metes & Bounds land descriptions, the first time we’d recorded large amounts of deed information, and this was the 3rd time we’d ever entered information into the software. We literally knew almost nothing about what we were doing, and DeedMapper brought home how closely these men lived.

Now, it doesn’t prove James and Ephraim were related, and it’s likely only DNA will ever do that, but there is now no question these men had a close relationship. They weren’t distant cousins that lived miles apart in the same County, their families lived right next to each other.

Who was their father?

We still don’t know. This creek that’s referenced in so many of the deeds was dammed up in the 1920’s to provide drinking water to New York City, and all of this land is under a reservoir. However, that project caused the local Gilboa cemetery to be relocated, which gave us strong evidence that our 5x GGP were Reuben and Esther Tradewell, and if we can ever prove that James and Ephraim were brothers, we’ll then likely know Ephraim’s father too.

So, Deed Books are a great tool to move forward some of your most stubborn research questions, and there is a great deal of data in them, but without a tool like DeedMapper you’re likely not going to get the full picture of what’s found in them!

 

Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research

Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research
(Note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.)

Our Ahab-like quest to build links between a group of Tradewell residents of upstate NY in the early 1800’s got a big boost with the discovery of a great new tool: DeedMapper (Direct Line Software)

About two months ago we came across a call to help index exactly the set of records we’d hoped to find, as we tried to build past one of our largest brick walls:  FamilySearch’s New York Land Records, 1630-1975 (Link). This is a collection of all of the NY Deed/Mortgage/Grantor/Grantee books including Schoharie, Albany and Delaware counties from the 1790’s onward. In advance of any Index, we went through every deed in Schoharie county from 1797 through 1845 (when we know our brick wall relatives moved to Wisconsin Territory) and found a gold mine of data.

But very quickly, we ran into the dreaded “Metes & Bounds” problem which we’d read about. Most of our land research has been in areas settled after Western migration when the US Government laid out a grid system that is much easier to determine where land was. Metes & Bounds (Wikipedia) describes land based on landmarks on the property itself, like this:

“Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E. and runs thence south fifteen degrees east ten chains and sixty links, thence East twenty five chains, thence north twenty one degrees thirty minutes east thirty two Chains, thence north ten chains fifty links, thence west seventeen chains and fifty links to the Schoharie creek, thence along said creek to the place of beginning”

This makes it nearly impossible to map out what a piece of property looked like, or where it might have been located. But DeedMapper was created to draw a plot based on these property descriptions, and it allows you to overlay the properties on a map. We’re here to tell you, it works well and it’s now a key tool in our tool kit.

The tool has an easy “wizard” like entry window for new deeds, and we had the hang of it the first deed we entered. Essentially, we just had to breakdown the original deed description at each use of “thence”, like this:

  • Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E.
  • thence south fifteen degrees east ten chains and sixty links,
  • thence East twenty five chains,
  • thence north twenty one degrees thirty minutes east thirty two Chains,
  • thence north ten chains fifty links,
  • thence west seventeen chains and fifty links to the Schoharie creek,
  • thence along said creek to the place of beginning

The Deed entry screen walked us through each of those lines, until we had our first plot!

DeedMapper - One plotThe next thing we wanted to do was see this on a map, and while DeedMapper has many local maps for purchase, they suggested we download free USGS Topographical maps instead…which worked perfectly because the Schoharie Creek was dammed up in the late 1920’s and no longer runs where any of these property descriptions ran 100 years earlier. The USGS Topo map we downloaded was from 1903, so we were able to get much closer to where the creek ran in 1806.

We found it very easy to move the plots to fit marks on the maps, the feature called “meandering” was especially useful times when the boundary line is described as “along said creek”.

The software is of an older vintage, and it reminds us of a time before ribbons and web interfaces, but it’s more importantly rock solid, well coded, and it does exactly what’s needed. It doesn’t need to be fancy, or modern, it just needs to work and it does.

Just as importantly, DeedMapper support is exemplary! When we first emailed about how we could buy the product without a CD/DVD drive, we had an almost instant reply from a human who is clearly deeply involved in the product. He solved that issue, and then gave us the great info on the USGS maps instead of trying to sell us their own maps. Combined with the great community that’s grown up around this product, with customers sharing their own plotted deeds to the extent that some counties in several states are full mapped, and available for free, it’s clear that one way or another we’re going to get what we need going forward for this software to help us in our genealogical quest.

About the only thing we didn’t like was that DeedMapper is Windows-only, and we do all of our family history on a Mac. Luckily we’re multi-OS, and we’ve been running the program on a MS Surface tablet with no issues.

So, what can you do with DeepMaper and these old Deed books? Next week we’ll give you an example of how we used it to attack some of the questions we’ve been hunting since we first posted about the Tradewell family over a year ago, but here’s what we immediately saw when we drew our first 3 plots…that we thought were just random, unrelated properties:

DeedMapper - Plots

The story of how DeedMapper helped prove a family relationship for us continues here: How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

To save our family archives, we must give them away

To save our family archives, we must give them away

In recent weeks, many events came together that drove home something we’ve known for awhile: as genealogists we are not equipped to keep the family records we’ve collected safe enough, and we need to get them in the hands of those who can as quickly as possible. We can’t keep the treasures we’ve saved if we want to save them.

The thought first struck as Hurricane Florence slammed ashore a few weeks ago, and we wondered how many family history collections throughout North Carolina were about to be lost to history under feet of flood waters. And not just the collections like ours, but the little scraps of paper sitting in grandma’s drawers that would have given some future researchers a priceless insight into the lives of their ancestors. Probably 10’s of thousands of priceless documents (at least) were lost never to be documented, never to be appreciated or protected. Then Hurricane Michael hit and wiped out Mexico City, FL and laid a swath of destruction into Southern Alabama…and likely another round of loss of collections that would have added to the mosaic of our research.

Most of the plate glass negatives in the collection that we recently saved were eventually just thrown into a dumpster. We have about 25% of what was saved over the 48 years the studio was in business, but the other 75% was just thrown away.

But what finally brought it home to us, and stunned us so deeply that we had to take a few weeks off before writing this, was that most of the plate glass negatives in the collection that we recently saved (link) were eventually just thrown into a dumpster. We have about 25% of what was saved over the 48 years the studio was in business, but the other 75% was just thrown away. The person that we were able to buy these crates of slides from recounted that they had finished picking in the house that held the studio when they heard glass shattering from the cleaning crew throwing two crates into the dumpster. They realized the plates might be valuable, and asked if they could buy the remaining crates. The person in charge of the estate agreed, and our patron hauled 6 of the crates (at about 90 lbs. per 2’x2′ crate) before they realized they couldn’t carry more, or get them home, and so they left the rest there. The house was confirmed empty by the end of that day…nothing was left.

It didn’t have to be that way. The daughter of the studio owner the studio was approached by a local noted historian and collector over 20 years ago, after obtaining one of the crates and 1000’s of the studio images, and did everything he could to convince her to let him keep her collection safe. But, as someone who didn’t have the ability to let go of objects, she couldn’t part with them. Her house grew full of useless objects over the decades, and grew full of pets who made the house nearly unlivable, so that when she passed it was nearly impossible for the non-relative who inherited the property to sort through anything, even if they understood the historical value of what was in that basement. Instead of a carefully curated collection being kept safe and secure decades earlier, it was shattered in the bottom of a dumpster before it was dumped in a landfill.

In some ways we are like that daughter of the studio owner. We have spent countless hours recovering and protecting some of the most amazing documents. We’ve found pictures of our African American great grandfather, and his twin brother, from a time and place where people of color wouldn’t normally have their photos taken, as well as another great grandfather’s White House place card from the Inaugural Ball of William Howard Taft. These are historic, priceless items that bring us great joy and pleasure. They remind us of the rush of the find, and the pride of the work we’ve done. But, as hard as it will be, we must get them out of our hands as quickly as possible and into those hands that can protect them forever. We’re only one bad storm, or one mislaid cigarette, away from losing them like so many others have been lost.

Our project to save a piece of Racine, Wisconsin history, Part 1 – Getting Started

Our project to save a piece of Racine, Wisconsin history, Part 1 – Getting Started

Early one Sunday morning in mid-August I woke up and checked my phone, and saw an eBay listing linked to a post on a Racine History Facebook group. The admin of the group was suggesting someone should buy these plates…and 39 minutes after he posted that plea, I checked the auction and it had ended. Someone had clicked the “Buy it Now” and the negatives were gone. It was the beginning of what’s going to be one of the biggest projects I’ve ever tackled.

This work totally diverges from our normal genealogy and family history research, and it’s a first for this blog to be writing about something outside of the journey of building out our son’s family tree…but something about doing this felt urgent. And luckily my wife indulges me when I tilt at windmills.

Tracking down the collection

After seeing the auction closed, I immediately emailed the seller with a polite request to confirm that the item had actually sold, and if there were any other cases that might be available. He replied back later that day that he had sold that case, but he was cleaning out a space for someone and there may be other cases. About a week later he reached out and said that he’d found 4 more cases, and agreed to sell them directly. We met him at a storage locker and I found he had 3 cases of 5″x7″ glass negatives and 1 case of 8″x10″ negatives. The larger plates were in very bad shape, but the 5×7’s were looked largely OK.

20180824_1228141.jpg
3 of the first 4 crates being picked up

The seller was a bit taken aback at the level of interest he’d received on the auction, and wondered why they were so popular. I explained that a collection of this size of these plate negatives was very rare, and that it likely captured an amazing slice of life in Racine…a slice that would be lost if the collection were broken up. We talked about my intention to get the collection together, make sure the plates were archived properly, scanned and shared publicly, and then donated to a museum that could protect them. The seller agreed to forward my contact information to the person who bought the case of slide we saw on eBay.

About two weeks later that original purchaser reached out to me and I learned he had actually purchased 2 cases, and that he’d sell those cases to me…at a small profit. A few days later we picked up those cases, and we found the scope of what we had: 5 cases of 5″x7″ dry plate negatives, most with two images per slide, for a total of about 2000 slides and 3000-3500 images, as well as 1 crate of 8″x10″ negatives, about 200 total images.

Where did these images come from?

FrankStriteskyObitThese images were taken by Frank Stritesky who operated the Home Portrait Studio at 1022 High Street in Racine from 1916 through his death in 1964. Frank and his wife Anne were of Bohemian ancestry, and they lived in one of the largest Bohemian neighborhoods in the US, so this collection is likely a great snapshot of that population as well as hopefully showing how the neighborhood changed over the nearly 50 years the studio was in operation.

Frank was survived by two daughters, Betty and Dorothy. Betty never married, and lived with Anne until her death in 1973. Betty continued to live in the house on High Street until her death last year, and it looks like her friend that serves as the administrator of her estate is clearing out the house. The person that originally sold me the plates is a collector, and likely came across this collection as he helped clean out the home or through an Estate Sale. The negatives were probably stored in the basement of the studio, or the garage, which explains the condition issues.

As a side note, after a few posts that I made to the Racine History Facebook group another local historian reached out to me indicating that he had bought a case of plates from the family, before there were condition issues, as well as many prints made from these slides. He felt there could have been around 12,000 images total at the time of Frank’s death, which would mean our collection is only about 25% of what once was.

How are we archiving the negatives?

Our first worry is to get these dry plates stable, and protected, so they don’t continue to deteriorate. We have worked with large, important collections as a part of our family history research (Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection) so we had a good idea of how to research the best way to archive these plates. We settled on Hollinger’s Four Flap Negative Enclosures (Four-Flap Document/Pamphlet Envelopes) placed in Dark Gray “Shoe Box” metal edge boxes (Short Lid Negative & Print Storage Boxes), surrounded inside with Ethafoam archival foam to cushion the slides (Artcare Archival Foam White Board). We can fit 70 slides in each box, and given how heavy they are, that works out to about 15 lbs. per box…which is manageable and easy to carry/store. Each box will be stored in a climate/humidity controlled room we have for our collections.

To clean or not to clean

Once I started unboxing the first crate of negatives, it became apparent just how affected by the environment these negatives were. The 5″x7″ were worse than I’d thought, and even the best of them shows a gradation in the photo emulsion that indicates likely water damage. Additionally most have a brown “dirt” on them that often caused the slides to stick together.

I have an extensive background in photography, having processed nearly 20,000 rolls over my lifetime. While my work is entirely on modern, plastic-based negatives, it still gave me confidence that I’d be able to master any needed cleaning techniques. My hope was that I could clean each plate, returning to as close as its original condition as possible. I was able to find an official Kodak publication that details the cleaning process for these exactly types of Kodak dry plate negatives, and it turns out I have most of the chemicals on hand since I still process my own B&W film from time-to-time.

I also reached out to several area museums and archivists in the area, and found white papers from archivists on how they had cleaned dry plate negatives like ours. The Kodak book was specific to removing what’s called “silvering” which is when the silver in the emulsion essentially tarnishes, which isn’t a huge issue with these negatives. It’s present in these negatives, but it’s not impacting. So then we decided to focus on the MUCH easier process of gently cleaning the dirt off the emulsion side of the slides, rinsing them in water, and drying them. The process is detailed by a former City of Toronto archivist (Cleaning Glass Negatives by R. Scott James) and we started with the most damaged example we could find, a slide that was barely viewable it was so dirty.

When we cleaned this first negative, we learned the truth: the “dirt” was not dirt, it was Negative-002-001-prevwhat’s left over when the emulsion is damaged. It’s likely what’s left over when water gets between the slides and drys in that state, and what’s left behind after it’s cleaned is just clear glass. The emulsion is totally ruined in those spots, and so cleaning it doesn’t really damage the negative further, it just reveals the damage. Given the risk to many of these plates, and the risk of even washing the emulsion, I decided to avoid cleaning the emulsion altogether.

 

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I did decide to wash the glass side of each plate…until I started to clean with the first 5 slides. There was no damage, but there was no impact either. They didn’t look better, and it took a lot of effort to get them completely clean, without streaks. Since even just cleaning the glass carries a risk of breakage, and there’s no real value in cleaning them, we decided to not clean them at all short of brushing them with proper brushes…carefully avoiding any lose parts of the emulsion. Besides, there’s an adage among collectors of old valuables: they can be in original condition once…once you clean them, they can’t be uncleaned.

Scanning them for use

We reviewed the process UWM followed to digitize their 20,000 slide Polonia Collection (Digitizing Milwaukee’s Polonia at UWM Libraries), and it really is the way to best do something like this. However, we’re already spending about $500/crate in archiving supplies, and we don’t feel like spending the money on a Nikon D800 digital camera, so we chose instead of use the flatbed scanner we already own. It’s much slower per image, but we own needed hardware.

We own an Epson V550 flatbed scanner specifically to scan photos and negatives, and while it has great image quality, the negative scan area can only do 1/2 of the image per scan. We’ve created a custom jig to hold each plate as its scanned, and to ensure we capture the right area with each scan.

For the scans themselves we’ve largely adopted the Library of Congress standards for their Civil War Glass Negative collection (Digitizing the Collection). The first two scans are 1200 dpi at 16-bit grayscale, and I combine them in Photoshop and export them at the “Highest Resolution TIFF Images” standard in the LoC document. From there, I import them to Adobe Lightroom and put a loose crop on them (showing essentially the entire plate), straighten them if needed, and with no other digital alterations export them to the LoC’s “Compressed Service Images” standard (1024 pixel on the long edge, 8-bit grayscale, .jpg files). I then attach a proper citation to each image, and upload the images to our Archive site. These images are lo-res enough to take up very little space in our Archive, but sharp enough to see most of the detail in each slide.

The first box of negatives revealed

Slides, Box1The first box of the first crate appears to come from 1917-1919. There’s a man in a uniform that was only in-use from late 1917 through mid-1918, and in another a woman is holding a magazine published in October 1919. There is a wedding party in one series of photos, and a good mix of children, family portraits, and individual portraits. Women were often wearing what I would have thought of as Victorian boots, and while smiling would have been very acceptable by this time, many of the adults have more of a scowl than a grin. Especially the men in the family portraits! There are quite a few men in uniform, right around the time of WWI.

We’ve also learned that each crate is going to require 5-6 of the shoe boxes to hold all of the slides, and that the crates weigh about 90 lbs. each!

What’s next?

A LOT of work! This box took about 2 straight days to scan, and another 2-3 days to combine the photos and prepare them for presentation. It then took a day to give them the proper index data in the Archives, so each box represents about a week’s worth of full-time work, so each crate will take about 6 weeks total to process. We are going to avoid giving updates for a bit after this, so we can focus on the scanning/archiving piece of this project…with an eye of getting these negatives processed and safe as quickly as possible.

We are also going to keep looking for any additional crates, to see if we can add to what we have, and we’re going to keep trying to get a copy of the key that links the # on each plate to the person in the photo. In the meantime, if you recognize anyone in these photos please let me know and I’ll update the information.

Finally, it’s time to start discussions with local History Societies and Museums to see who might be able to house this collection permanently. Something like this, something this historic and special, can’t ever be properly safe in my home. It’s also expensive for institutions to house these items, as well as getting them into an archival state…I’m hoping that by doing most of the work for them, and doing it properly, places will be interested enough to take in this collection when the time comes. Starting that conversation early on should help that effort.

Where are the pictures??

Click this link to view the Archives, and to browse the first 70 images from this collection: Home Portrait Studio (Racine, Wisconsin) Collection

Please share, discuss, and help identify the surviving families who might never has seen these images. But most of all, enjoy this special slice of Racine’s history!!

 

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It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture

It’s time to stop giving attention to “Ethnicity” and genetic admixture

[One quick note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.]

Ancestry has made a lot of noise recently when they updated their Ethnicity estimates, and the now intensified debate about the “accuracy of DNA tests” and the confusion among the general public makes it clear: as a community of serious researchers, we need to be the voice of reason when it comes genetic admixture and call it out for dubiously valuable, largely inaccurate parlor trick that it is. Here’s why:

Ethnicity cannot be tested for. Ever.

Ethnicity is a social construct. Period. If we look at any test, any genealogical tree or other determination it will not build a social link to ones ancestral background. Michael hasn’t been to Ireland, but I have, and despite being able to trace 12.5% of my 3x great grandparents to Ireland, and Ancestry’s admixture pointing to an Irish background, I am not Irish. I visited Ireland as an American…a very obvious American. As will Michael when he visits. Nor will he be mistaken for Beninian when we visit Benin. We are Americans, some with European ancestors some with African ancestors as well, but even with a perfect admixture that could pinpoint our ethnic ancestors exactly…we’re still not German, or Cameroonian, or English/Irish, etc. You can’t test for it, and DNA gives you no indication of how someone identifies ethnically. And that’s important, because Ethnicity is only about how someone identifies themselves and/or how others identify them…it’s not based on a gene. Neither is race, but that’s another rant for another day.

We need to voice a supportable, honest, accurate narrative to drive continued testing…one that will continue after the “Ethnicity” emperor is shown to have no clothes.

It’s not honest

All DNA testing companies, especially 23andMe and Ancestry, are for-profit enterprises that have a strong incentive to grow their number of DNA tests. The larger the test database, the more money the companies charge to sell access to your data. This isn’t to say they are selling personally identifiable data, the data is largely de-identified and aggregated, but it’s YOUR data…and it’s very, very valuable. 23andMe survives almost entirely on the revenue generated from your data, and it’s likely Ancestry is generating a large amount of their revenue from your DNA data as well. And no one’s advertising “come test with us, we are selling to great causes like Michael J. Fox Foundation” [23andMe], they are basing their sales pitch on the shiny bauble that gets the tests in the door: Ethnicity and pretty graphs. The more we play into the Ethnicity debate

It’s not our tool

Ethnicity (as determined by genetic admixture), has almost no genealogical or family history value, and the results will never break a brick wall or significantly add to your family’s stories. First, all of the major providers target who your genetic ancestors were 800-1000 years ago. Even those of us with great trees rarely go back to 1000-1200 AD…and we doubt there would be much value in anyone researching our 28th great grandparents. We have over 1 million 18th GGP’s. Admixture doesn’t rank even among the top 20 tools we use to build our trees, and it doesn’t deliver us any value.

It’s not accurate, and it’s not scientific

16kEthnicityThe biggest red flag from Ancestry’s last update was this: they increased the reference samples from 3,000 tests to 16,000. They have literally spent the last 4 years selling “Ethnicity” to the general public as a great reason to build Ancestry’s test database, even though the entire house of cards was built on 3,000 reference samples. There is no statistically valid data that be gleaned from 3,000 total samples as they relate to our genetic ancestors 1000 years ago. Again, we each had MILLIONS of ancestors 30 generations ago…and to use 3kEthnicity3,000 for all genetic admixture just demonstrates the shoddy science that underpins this process. Even 16,000 is a ridiculously small sample…even if they were each perfectly tied to a region 1000 years ago. “Ethnicity” is just enough science to seem valid enough to be scientific…and just scientific enough to justify the pretty graphs that facilitate the selling of more tests.

It’s hurting genealogy, and it will ultimately turn the public off of genetic DNA testing

Youtube is rife with videos of the general public discussing their “inaccurate” DNA tests, with the testee going into great detail about how they know their Ethnicity and they see something they don’t expect, the test is wrong. There are now new discussions everywhere with people questioning the entire testing process when the “results” can be changed so dramatically by a change by Ancestry. Ancestry is aware of the strain this update is having on the general public, and we can see the efforts they’re making to try and calm people as they go through the update. There are explanations, surveys, etc. to try and make sure the public doesn’t freak out about this change. It’s all just adding more weight to the idea that these tests aren’t accurate/reliable. Since the entire business case for the public taking these tests has been “Ethnicity”, once that’s being exposed as the subjective “art” that it is, the only reason for people to test is being questioned. We will hit a tipping point where our relatives are going to think of DNA testing as a “scam” that’s of no value/dangerous, and it’s going to make the process of getting tests that much harder.

So, what can we do? What impact can we have? Honestly, not much…at least not immediately. But, as the people serious about genealogy we can start being the voice of reason and begin to lay out a better justification for why the public should test, even if the focus of the commercial testing companies is only on adding more samples to their databases. If the thought-leaders and respected voices in the communities turn their back on genetic admixture, that will eventually drive the discussion.

To that end, here’s our suggestions:

  • Stop discussing “Ethnicity” as a testable value – Push back on this basic premise and start to educate the public on why DNA tests have no value as it relates to how they identify ethnically.
  • Don’t give genetic admixture a place at the table – We should no more engage in admixture as a point of genealogical value as we phrenology. They both sound scientific, and their proponents would like them to be seen as science, but neither are science. Even making an anti-admixture discussion elevates it to a “con” in a pro vs. con debate. We need to stop engaging in a debate of equal positions with admixture.
  • Develop other reasons the general public, and our relatives, should submit tests – The tens of millions of tests in various databases have a HUGE value to the genealogical community, and we all benefit as more tests are added. We need to voice a supportable, honest, accurate narrative to drive continued testing…one that will continue after the “Ethnicity” emperor is shown to have no clothes.
  • Be honest with our relatives as they test and help them, and the general public, understand how these tests play into the for-profit world – Those who take tests aren’t purchasing a product, they are the product. 23andMe and Ancestry needs those tests to make a profit, and it’s the only reason why they offer these tests. Let’s discuss that, and what we get in return, to level set everyone’s expectations. If we don’t set these expectations, some scandal will do it for us, and when negative public opinion sets in, we likely will lose the value of having non-experts testing.

Bottom line is that we can see how the reality of DNA testing doesn’t match the perception of the testing public, and all eggs are in the “Ethnicity” basket. As that basket starts to fray, we can either be a part of the rational message that keeps this testing world moving forward, or we can be reactive and wish we could go back to the “good old days” when people were testing without us having to fight for each one.

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

We could see it coming…back in March of 2017, one of our first blog posts was about Ancestry.com’s new tool “We’re Related” (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears). It was a bit of a “hot take” about how it was less silly than it seemed and how it could be very powerful if it’s expanded to a tool that is predictive of your matches.

We’re Related is making suppositions based (apparently) on an algorithm that can draw the line between what you know, and what it guesses is true, to build a potential line for you. If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Before we take any victory laps…we have to admit, we were incredibly naive. We never guessed that Ancestry would take this powerful technology and use it to take it’s worst, most frustrating feature, and make it much more dangerous.

The new feature is the “Potential Father/Mother” suggestion, and I’m going to let Carolynn ni Lochlainn detail all the challenges of this new tool, and the risks, in her SPOT ON “From Paper to People” Podcast #27 (From Paper to People: What I Hate About New). Please listen, but her upshot is that this feature is an easy way for those new to genealogy to quickly build out their trees, and the tool forces you to create the ancestor without any sources attached.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Ancestry is the Public Trees that are so often inaccurate, and are often built solely on other people’s unsourced trees. Now, it’s a certainty that these trees are going to start to mushroom, and by design have NO citations attached to the new ancestor.

Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools.

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but then to immediately attach the citations to the newly added ancestor. We, as a community, can also make sure we NEVER use a Member Tree to support a fact. You can link the Member Tree ancestor to yours, but make sure all facts are unselected before you link them. They will see your additional work, and you them, but you will not perpetuate their unsourced facts.

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But, Ancestry.com isn’t packed full of serious hobbyists/professionals and “Potential Parent” is going to take the problem of Member Trees and make it explode it beyond what we could have imagined. At some point, the tree feature in Ancestry is going to be unusable. Ancestry.com will continue to be a great source of primary research, but it will be nothing more than a data repository for those of us who are serious about this work.

And, back to our naivety…the most frustrating thing is that we should have known better. Again, going back to our vaults, we saw right away that AncestryDNA is here to support genealogy ONLY because it’s a good way to gather DNA tests (Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research). Once Ancestry realized that pushing pretty graphs and “ethnicity” was the best way to sell more tests, they pivoted and met their true goal with these tests: the largest DNA database that will generate a tremendous amount of revenue from drug companies, etc. who can leverage your tests to understand how their drugs might work. Ancestry now (or soon will) make more money from monetizing your DNA than it does from supporting our genealogical work.

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How did the public records “Reclaim the Records” paid to get show up here, for paid members only?

Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools, but putting more effort into the graphs will drive more people to test, which will grow the database, and grow the revenue stream.

As a community we have to get ready to accept that Ancestry is not a partner in our work, and is not in business to support us or our needs. They exist to generate revenue, and as long as that interest and ours intersect, we’re good, but as they make more money from other streams they are going to sacrifice our needs to focus on revenue. You’re already seeing that with things like “Potential Parents”, more admixture, and their new collections consisting of public records gathered at great expense by groups like Reclaim The Records and putting them behind the paywall.

The genealogy features of Ancestry are still there, for now, but the bad Member Trees we suffer through today are likely going to be remembered as the golden age of online genealogy research.

 

Taking a step back from building our Family Tree

Taking a step back from building our Family Tree

There’s a horrible truth in life that there are only so many hours in the day. We only have so many hours to do what we need to before we start it over again…and as AWESOME it would be to get a 30 hour day, we’ve settled on one with only 24 hours.

With that, the two non-negotiable items in life are a reasonable amount of sleep (6-7 hours) and work. We need food/housing/cars/$ to supporting our family, and our genealogy habit, so we’ll continue to work. That leaves a few hours each night, and a couple of weekend days to manage a household with 5-7 people (depending on which kids are home from college), manage a wonderful marriage, spend time together as a family, and take part in any hobbies we love.

Something has to give, and we decided it will be building out any new branches, or conducting new research, on our family tree

Of course, Family History is one of those hobbies…and we’ve reached the limit of what we can do in the time that we have. We’re going to have to start paring back. We saw this coming over a year ago, when we went from doing our genealogy to adding DNA results to the mix. It became clear that we could literally do nothing but DNA matches for the next 30 years…so we limited our work there. Then came the first great archive that we received. 1000’s of pages of personal documents and photos that are priceless, and which document both our family and a moment of minor historical value in the late 1910’s: The founding of the Progressive Movement in the Republican Party, leading up to the Republican revolt against House Speaker Joe Cannon and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” run for the Presidency in 1912. We knew right away this had the potential to become the dominant focus of our genealogy, and it worried us (Coming up with a plan to manage our new, huge family history collection)

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Rescuing 2000+ dry glass negatives from 1916-1964 is a labor of love…but it’s labor none-the-less

On top of that we’ve become VERY committed to proper citation/labeling of all of documents, and ensuring our public trees are all well cited. And we started this blog. And then we were given another amazing family archive, with more likely to follow. And finally, we rescued nearly 2000 glass plate negatives from a defunct photo studio that operated in the early-to-mid 1900’s in our hometown of Racine, WI that we need to archive, scan, upload to the public, and get ready for donation to the local historical society.

Part of the issue is our success, in that we’ve found SO much amazing materials over the 5 years of doing this that we literally have a lifetime of documents, photos, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. to catalog. We have a strong tree and LOTS of great DNA matches, etc. Part of the issue is we keep adding new stuff to our plate. It’s like Thanksgiving…we need a bit of everything on the biggest plate we can find, with seconds to boot.

We’ve tried to make compromises to keep doing it all. This blog only posts once a week, when we intended on two. And we’ve tried to keep posts to a 500 word maximum, while shelving the vlog we’d always intended. We’ve been VERY judicious on building out DNA links, and when we do we try and make it also double as a chance to make blog posts (like the “Casting a Wide Net” series). Tuesday night is couples night, Saturday night is date night, Sunday is genealogy day, and we try and balance late nights of family history work with pure family nights the next.

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For now, Michael’s 5x GGM will have to be as far as we go on this line…

But, it’s not working. In the last few weeks we had two “come to Jesus” moments. First, as we were trying to write the follow-up on Emily Ott, we found that we had her complete line documented and supported from before her family arrived in the US to her death. But, we weren’t able to really speak to main question we had (and which came out during our Podcast appearance about her): was she “rescued” by the Morse family from retched conditions and treated like a family member, or was she really a hired hand who was beloved, but also always an employee. We realized that we have literally 100 letters between the elder Morse’s and their daughter from that time, as well as the ledger books showing household expenses that include Emily’s salary. The answer is probably right there waiting for us to find it, and knowing that we can’t really publish the definitive “Emily Ott biography” until we review that information.

Then, second, as you read in the conclusion to our “Casting a Wide Net” series, we chased wild geese until we finally went back to the research we already had on-hand and realized that we had a key ancestor completely wrong. Our work to establish a DNA match on that line failed because we had the wrong GGP’s attached, and if we’d used the sources we had to support the facts we using, we would have caught this mistake 4 years ago. But the audio recordings went un-transcribed, and couldn’t be used to support/refute any of our facts.

So, something has to give, and we decided it will be building out any new branches, or conducting new research, on our family tree. For the next year or two we’re going to limit our scope to the following:

  • Process and catalog all family archival material so that it’s: secured, scanned, shared, and documented to where it can be a source for our trees, and others.
  • Determine how to properly clean dry glass plate negatives, and clean, scan, research, document, share, and archive the 2000 negatives we have in advance of donating the collection to an interested Museum.
  • Install a solution to ensure our archive room is kept at 65°/45% humidity year-round.
  • Ensure each Sources in our main, public, family tree is properly cited, with images where possible, and that each Fact is supported by at least one proper source.
  • Properly transcribe and index all family history interviews, so they can be used as proper Sources.
  • PUBLISH!
  • Write our autobiographies, as well as begin to write out what we know about our family…in preparation of publishing the entire history of our families.
  • Ensure that we’re printing out all electronic sources, so that our paper files are complete copies of our electronic files.
  • Spend a little more time with the family!

We’re sure this is a struggle for all of our fellow family historians/genealogists. And I see a lot of amazing blogs with people doing amazing work, with small children like us, and know they are doing the same juggle. If we didn’t have to work this would be a full-time pursuit we’d get more done, but then we’d be significantly less well off and we’d have to juggle the time we spend on clients with the time we need for our personal research. But, this is how we chose to draw the line…and when we get back to building out our tree, we should be much better positioned to make some breakthroughs, and keep everything tidy as we move forward.