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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On DNA, History and Definitions

Genealogical DNA testing as it is administered today provides reports such as the ones I recently received from both and I have been commenting on the differences between the two tests and this may ultimately result in my taking an additional test or tests for comparison. But before I get to that point, there are some serious issues that I need to resolve with the way the tests are reported.

My questions and comments are not directed at the procedures or scientific content of the tests, I am merely observing what I would characterize as very "fuzzy" history in the reporting of the results. The results from Ancestry are a very good example of my concerns. My DNA test produced the following general percentages of genetic matches as follows:
  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Other regions 16%
When I expand the analysis, I get the following results:
  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Iberian Peninsula 11%
  • Ireland 5%
When I expand the Irish component, I get the following expanded comment.

From my own research, I have ancestors who were born in Northern Ireland and were Protestants and most like came from Scotland. I also have ancestors who were born in Ireland that is now the Republic of Ireland. I also have some ancestors who, through research, clearly came from Wales and others that are definitely English. Now, I get to the issue of the ethnic history of each of these countries; England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The British Isles refers to a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of continental Europe. The earliest name for Great Britain is Albion. The term "Britannia" was used by the Romans after their conquest by Rome which began in 43 A.D. England's claims to Scotland resulted in more than a century and a half of war beginning in about 1174 and ending in 1296. The term "Great Britain" is loosely applied to what is further known as the United Kingdom. Quoting from Wikipedia: Great Britain:
Great Britain refers geographically to the island of Great Britain, politically to England, Scotland and Wales in combination. However, it is sometimes used loosely to refer to the whole of the United Kingdom. 
Similarly, Britain, can refer to either all islands in Great Britain, the largest island, or the political grouping of counties. There is no clear distinction, even in government documents: the UK government yearbooks have used both "Britain" and "United Kingdom".
The full name of the "United Kingdom" is the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irland." On May 1, 1707, the United Kingdom of Great Britain was formed as a result of the Acts of Union being passed by the parliaments of England and Scotland to ratify the 1706 Treaty of Union and so unite the two kingdoms.

There is a lot more history, but all this and more illustrates that the terms used by in communicating the DNA results are even fuzzier than the results themselves. This is especially true when you look at the reference to Ireland which then includes both Wales and Scotland which are clearly, now, part of what is often called "Great Britain."

In addition, none of these quasi-political designations have anything at all to do with genetic ethnicity. The population of Great Britain is extremely diverse. For example, in 1066 A.D. there was a considerable influx of French influence. Telling me that I have a certain percentage of my ancestry from Great Britain and then dividing off Ireland, Scotland and Wales is not only historically naive but really doesn't give me any useful information compared to doing careful genealogical research from historical documents. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Burying the Skeletons in your Genealogical Closet

The British Museum crystal skull.
We all have a skeleton or two (or more) in our genealogical closets. What do we do with them? First of all, history is history. A quote from Michael Crichton is appropriate:
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
I think I have used that quote before, but it appropriate in the present context. Since we live in the present, anything that just happened becomes history. For genealogists, unless that history was recorded in some way, it simply did not happen. History becomes history when it is recorded. Of course, the methods of transmission vary considerably. Once we become interested in our family's history, we start to become aware of the possible sources of information about our family. We are immediate heirs to an oral history transmitted by our immediate relatives. Some of us are deprived of this oral history because we have little or no contact with our relatives because of adoptions, abandonments or other difficult situations. We may also be separated from our oral history because our immediate family is estranged from other family members or for a whole list of other reasons.

However, oral histories are very selective. In some cultures, oral histories are the main method of transmission but in our American and Western European-based culture in the United States, we only get our oral history, if at all, in bits and pieces. For most of us, starting our research into our family becomes a voyage into the unknown.

After spending years doing genealogical research and learning more and more about my ancestors, I find that there are plenty of skeletons that were entirely ignored by the relatively small number of stories that were transmitted through the oral history channel. I have found stories of inspiration and overcoming obstacles and hardship. But I have also found that some of my ancestors were not model citizens.

There is an old saying, that I first heard from the Walt Disney movie Bambi, that goes, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This attitude is an undercurrent that strongly affects oral history transmissions. As I have solicited oral histories over the years, I have seen that there is a distinct tendency to ignore or eliminate any references to conflict or unpleasant issues. But sometimes, these issues are recorded in court records, newspaper articles, and other less editorial sources.

There is another saying that applies here and that is, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." In our case, as genealogists, we are happy to connect ourselves with all sorts of unsavory characters as long as they are back some distance in time and turn out to be famous or infamous. I am always amused that so many genealogists proudly display their "royal" ancestry when many of those same kings and queens were horrible people. It is interesting that some people will refuse to even talk about a close relative who has done something "terrible" but are proud to parade their more distant ancestors who did things that were much worse than the closer or more proximate relative.

Another aspect of this issue is the tendency genealogists display to rewrite history both to eliminate undesirable connections and to bridge gaps that they think need to be bridged. Although much of the inaccuracy of today's online family trees can be attributed to sloppy research and indiscriminate copying, there is a good measure of fabrication also. If a lengthy pedigree is impressive to some people, it is now easier than ever to acquire a long pedigree especially one leading back to royalty. It is also easy to overlook the lack of any supporting documentation. Many of the surname books I have inherited containing my "family history" start out with statements about how our family is related to royalty when no such connections have ever been documented.

Genealogists should be more in the mode of digging up the skeletons rather than burying them and don't forget that even the skeletons need to be carefully documented with the sources recorded.

Monday, May 22, 2017

DNA Update: Results Are In.

Well, according to, my connection to India and my Jewish Heritage both disappear and now I am Spanish. I have to believe that some of the conclusions from Ancestry are in the margin of error. When I received the results from the test, I could immediately see a correspondence to my own extensive research. However, I have never found any connections to the Iberian Peninsula in all my research. Here is what had to say about my DNA test.

The results are as follows:

  • Great Britain 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Iberian Peninsula 11%
  • Ireland 5%
Here is the report from, which I have posted previously, for comparison.

The results here are as follows:
  • British and Irish 87%
  • Scandinavian 9.3%
  • Ashkenazi Jewish 2.5%
  • South Asia 1.2%
By the way, now has an interesting fan chart that shows your origin according to the records in your part of the Family Tree. Obviously, if you had someone from one part of the world move to another, the fact that a person was born in the place of arrival does not affect your ethnicity. But, you can see the results of your research rather than what a DNA test might show. Here is the fan chart.

Another obvious fact is that this is a report of existing research, not a glimpse into ancient origins. This fan chart also lumps all of the people in the United States together. Here the unknown people are those with no birth place information. 

What is the reality? Who knows at this point. After spending a year reading and studying the genealogical DNA process, it looks to me that the margins of error erase any possible fine point conclusions. 

One important fact for me is that the DNA test conclusions are and were immediately explainable from my own research. Even the small percentage link to Southern Asia has a possible explanation backed up by research. However, the DNA connection to the Iberian Peninsula is really interesting because my wife showed up with the same connection and neither of us in all our extensive research has found any possibilities that would indicate such a connection. 

Now let's get into a hypothetical situation. What if I had taken both these tests before I had done any genealogical research at all? What would I think? How would I proceed? Would either test have been at all helpful? Would I have been motivated to begin the research process because of the tests? I really can't answer any of those questions. My personal motivation to start doing genealogical research had nothing to do with a curiosity about my ancestry. Maybe someone else would be so motivated, but how would the average researcher approach their genealogical research any differently given the discrepancies between the two tests?

What will I now do differently than I would not have done before taking the tests? Absolutely nothing. I am still doing intensive research in Rhode Island. Oh, I didn't mention the two findings from about their Genetic Communities that I have very likely had Mormon Pioneers in the Mountain West as ancestors and that I had Settlers of Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts as ancestors. Both of those conclusions could have easily been determined from my family tree. 

I guess I am left to speculate whether or not speaking Spanish almost all my life has somehow altered both my own and my wife's genetic makeup someway. 

More on this later when I calm down. 

Restricted Records -- A Word to the Wise

This is going to be short note. While doing a microfilm search on the Brigham Young University Family History Library webpage, I got the above response to my search. Because I seldom believe such notices, I immediately searched for the same item online. I found the both and the Hathi Trust had compete and available digital copies online. I also found the item, a book, in the BYU Harold B. Lee Library.

Here is the word to the wise. Always assume that the item you are looking for is available in digital form online. You will be right more than half the time. If it is not online, it will be in the BYU Family History Library in Provo, Utah. If for any reason, it is not in the BYU Library, it will be in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. If it is in none of those places, it may be available through interlibrary loan. Only after all this searching, should you really feel justified in traveling to a remote repository to do some research.

Moral of this story? I do not have to travel, even to Salt Lake City.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Why we may be wrong in our approach to genealogical research
An article from the JSTOR Daily website entitled "Have Humans Been in the Americas Longer Than We Thought?" makes an interesting statement:
The study of human migration to the Americas shows that widely held beliefs can be proven wrong.
This statement is made in the context of the revisions that have been made to "accepted" theories about the time depth of human remains in America contradicting current dogma on the subject. This particular subject has interested me for many years and I have been watching as the dates are revised further and further into the past.

In my opinion, along with scientists, genealogists are among the most dogmatic people I know. Of course, there are other dogmatic people, but in this post I am focusing on these two groups.

We all know exactly how genealogical research should be conducted even if our methods vary considerably. What is also interesting about both scientists and genealogists is that they tend to have cadre of experts that try to heavily influence and control the rest of their respective communities. I ran into this when I was finishing up my Masters Thesis at the University of Utah. I had some opinions that clashed with the accepted scientific dogma of the time and was told by one professor in particular that if I followed that line of investigation, I would never get a job with a university in the United States. This is not an extreme example. I have a fairly good contact with the acedemic community today not only from my position on the Brigham Young University Campus, but also because many of my children and their spouses have advanced degrees and four of them are or were professors at major universities. I also taught at the community college level for many years.

As genealogists, we are presently caught in the middle of a huge technological revolution that is directly affecting how and even why we do our research. But there are those who wish to ignore the changes and maintain the comfort zone of "traditional" research methodology. It is not uncommon for me to encounter long-time genealogical research experts who barely know how to use a computer and who are not at all comfortable with online research. Many of them also have limited typing skills. Yet, they are still considered to be leaders and experts in the genealogical community.

For example, neither of the major genealogical certification programs contain any reference to using computers, online research or anything having to do with technology at all. Conceivably, an applicant to either organization could complete the entire process without using a computer except for typing in a word processing program. I was approached not long ago by a person who indicated that they were in the last stages of qualifying for one of the professional certification processes and asked me for help in getting onto a computer and for instructions about how to login to

I am certainly not denigrating the skills outlined and selected by the certification organizations. But I am pointing out that genealogists fall into the same trap as scientists when they ignore or even oppose new discoveries and technological advances. I am sure that there are a large number of genealogists who have a broad understanding of technology and utilize all of the available resources, but currently they are a decided minority.

We are presently in a technological shift in genealogical research that is the functional equivalent of finding 130,000 year old stone implements in America. We are also experiencing the equivalent resistance to those changes as are the scientists who have found the ancient implements.

Friday, May 19, 2017

MyHeritage introduces the Collection Catalog

One of the things that has been "missing," in a sense, from is the ability to easily search a catalog of all of the collections. That issue has been decisively put to rest with the new Collection Catalog introduced yesterday, May 18, 2017. I immediately appreciated the utility of the new feature because I frequently use similar features on other programs. Here is where I found the link to the new feature:

It is located in the pull-down menu under the Research tab. The list of collections is impressive with a well-developed filtering system.

I find this kind of list particularly useful when I am looking for records in a specific part of the world. This list lets me know the time period covered by the records and whether or not the website has the particular records I am looking for.

For more detailed information about the Collection Catalog, please see the blog post entitled, "New: Collection Catalog. "

Genealogy and Premium Features: The Family Nexus

One of the most interesting recently developed programs or "apps" for genealogy is The Family Nexus.

The Family Nexus is following what has now become a standard program development model. A programmer or developer comes up with a new idea for a program (for genealogy or any other area or interest) and after creating a workable product begins to promote a "free" version. Once the free version gains some traction, the developer adds a number of features and then introduces those features as a fee-based add-on to the original free version. Huge online genealogy programs such as still maintain their "free" version of their programs. The developers count on the fact that the added value of the upgrades or new features will attract paying customers.

This whole process is necessary since there are few options for providing a "free" program without ultimately obtaining some method of support. For example, in the case of The Family History Guide, a completely free program that intends to remain free, we are now promoting The Family History Guide Association, a non-profit corporation that will ask for and solicit donations to continue the work of the free website. Users of free computer programs should not be at all surprised when this happens.

One other trend is that programs and apps are going to a subscription model of marketing rather than a one-time sale. The reality is that the subscription model is really what has been happening all along. Every program that has endured for any period of time has had to be upgraded. Genealogists seem to be more prone than the rest of the computer world to complain about upgrades and the cost of upgrades. But since I used the first, pre-release versions of programs such as Microsoft Word and what is now called Adobe Photoshop, I have been constantly paying for upgrades. In some cases, the upgrade cost alone has caused me to abandon the program. Now, many of the programs I use are on annual subscriptions rather than paying for an annual upgrade.

The Adobe Creative Cloud is a good example. We use several Adobe programs regularly and the cost of upgrading those individual programs has, for some time, exceeded the cost of a subscription to the Creative Cloud. I also have subscriptions for my online backup program, some online storage programs and some other apps and programs such as the Microsoft Office Suite.

Going back to The Family Nexus, I strongly suggest downloading the free program and taking a look at the new features linked above. One of the challenges of trying to implement a fee-based program by piggy-backing it on a free program is setting a price that will be acceptable to subscribers. This issue engenders a lot of discussion and thought. Genealogists should realize that they wouldn't have any programs or apps or databases or anything at all unless someone paid for it.