Saturday, April 30, 2011

Race In Family History Research: It's Complicated

There are two kinds of people. Those who divide everyone into two groups and those who don’t. You have probably heard several variations of this old addage. There are many examples of the first group when we talk about race in American history. There are Blacks and Whites, North and South, etc.

However, when we examine the stories of individual families, such concepts are rarely that simple.

Example # 1: I have helped two different women in two different states research their family trees. Each had been raised as Aftican-Americans and considered themselves to be so. Of the 8 great-grandparents of each who could be firmly identified, both turned out to have 3 great-grandparents who could be documented to be African-Americans. However, both also had 3 great-grandparents who could be documented to be Native-Americans. In addition, one had a great-grandfather who could be documented to be a European-American.

Example # 2: Y-chromosome DNA studies are showing that about one-fourth of those who identify themselves to be African-Americans actually have at least one European male in their paternal lines.

Example # 3: “Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood”[1] says Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey form Black to White. New York: Penguin, 2011.

I just completed reading the extensively researched and well written book listed above. Sharfstein is a friend of my son in Nashville and a law school professor at Vanderbilt. His prior experience as a print journalist shows in his writing style. Even though I have two degrees in history, I learned a lot about the complex and personal ebbs and flows of the African American journey from Colonial times to the mid-20th century. Legal, social and economic issues are woven into these three genealogical family histories that move between both North and South. It took me a while to get used to jumping back and forth between the three families—a style employed by Henry Louis Gates, Faces of America. Gates is one of Dan’s academic mentors.

Sharfstein notes the power of genealogists to illuminate complex family histories:

The secrets of prior generations, it seems, are no match for the Internet. In just the past decade, historical and genealogical databases have reduced search that used to take years—scrolling frame by frame through entire volumes of newspapers on microfilm—to mere days or even hours. Popular ancestry Web sites and vast communities of online researchers have allowed millions of Americans to learn previously inconceivable truths about their roots. All it takes is one genealogy buff in the family. Far from big cities and major archives, [they] have gone to their local public libraries to search census records.

Denial is a common and understandable reaction. Members of these families have identified so closely with the mainstream of white Americaand the line between black and white has appeared to be so solid—that an alternative account of their origins seems outlandish.

For some descendants, their family history provided answers to lifelong questions.

For one of the three families chronicled, the decision to pass for white led to downward social mobility, less money, education and influence than their black ancestors had enjoyed.

Understanding race in America is difficult, but this book will stimulate thought and illuminate these complexities.

[1]  Stacie Williams / February 23, 2011, Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of “The Invisible Line"
In "The Invisible Line," law professor Daniel J. Sharfstein uses the stories of three families to explore the fluid nature of racial identity in America. Christian Science Monitor February 23, 2011.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FHL Implements New Copy System: Part 3

This will be my last post on this topic--at least for awhile. I'm going home tonight. The system is also operating smoothly enough that continuing to comment on it would be boring for you to read and me to write. 

Most of the card vending machines are now operational. This is a big convenience for researchers to be able to replace their cards that have depleted the copies credited on them without leaving the floors on which they are working.

As expected, the change-over is a little more difficult for experienced users than it is for 1st timers. Some of us have to forget how we used to do it so that we can learn how to do it now. Newbies can start at step 2. 

The missionary volunteers on each shift are learning with the patrons how the system works. 

One remaining problem is that it seems not to be possible to sort the printer job queue. A short time ago I had to scroll through 14 pages of print jobs to find the ones I had just sent to the system.

Overall the implementation is going well due to the good strategic planning and tactical deployment by the staff on behalf of those of us who research here. Thank you for a job well done!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

FHL Implements New Copy System: Part 2

Today the big change that I described in yesterday’s post was inaugurated at the Family History Library (FHL). Although the first day was not without glitches, all in all things went well. Early in the morning there was a line to exchange the old copy cards for new. It took the staff a little time to get the hang of the new processes but things soon seemed to go more smoothly. I expected the line to exchange cards would grow as the library filled with more patrons but that didn’t seem to happen at any of the random times I passed that area of the library.

Patrons wait at cashier's window to exchange cards.

The multidimensional capacity of the new copiers will delight the tech savvy:

Instructions for copying, scanning and printing.

Paradoxically this can be a weakness in a library like FHL. Although there are some frequent patrons, most of those who visit the library do so only intermittently. This means the transition will require researcher education and card exchange to continue indefinitely. Fortunately, the bountiful supply of missionaries will mitigate this constant flow of uninitiated genealogists.

Queuing modeling of design engineers would suggest that the 18 machines should handle the volume. I hope that is true; but I have some reservations. The very complexity that is so seductive can create bottlenecks when untrained users puzzle over the plethora of opportunities before them. Also, when one copier went down on a floor today it reduced both printing and copying capacity by 25%.

Cards of various denomination wait for the vending machines to be made operational.

The other bumpy part of the inaugural day was that the vending machines for copy cards were not yet functional. This required patrons to have to trek to the main floor for a new card when they exhausted the ones they were using. Hopefully that flaw will be removed soon as the card dispensers become available throughout the library. 

I have been so caught up by what was included by this transition that it just now dawned on me what I have yet to see. Microforms don't seem to be included. It has already become apparent that FamilySearch has adopted digital imaging for new materials being added. Is this a step away from reliance on the microformats that have been the mainstay of the FHL and its satellite system of family history centers? Will the card system be expanded to include them or will patrons be further encouraged to transfer those images directly to flash drives and other portable devices?

Monday, April 25, 2011

FHL Implements New Copy System: Part 1

When I arrived at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City last week, I started seeing cellophane wrapped Ricoh Afico M CP4501 copiers (see above) stored in out of the way corners. Then I started hearing comments from staff discouraging patrons from charging too much money on copy cards because of an imminent change in the way copies and prints are paid for. The word was that this change was coming Tuesday, April 26th

Today D. Merritt White, Manager, Library Patron Services, was kind enough to sit down with me for a few minutes on what must have been one of the most hectic days he has experienced. He acknowledged that his staff didn’t know how late they would be working tonight to make sure the system switchover went smoothly for patrons tomorrow. So what is this new system?

If you have visited the FHL in recent years, you are probably aware how the copier and computer printer release systems have gradually been pieced together. The cost of such services to patrons has been kept very low. It is hard for me to believe that FHL recovers the cost of such services. Scanner stations have been added thus enabling patrons to scan images directly from microfilm and books to their flash drives. White explained that library policy was to allow patrons to save or email images to themselves at no charge but to try to recover the cost of paper if paper copies are created. This policy will continue.

What will change is that 18 all-in-one copiers will replace the current 14 book copiers and 15 print release stations. The new machines will copy or print or scan to flash drives or similar media. They will be operated by a touch screen rather than the current mouse navigation. OCR capacity will be available.

In addition a new Pharos Systems copy card system is being implemented. It will require some of us to be reprogramed. After years of trying to get us to write our names on our copy cards with permanent pen, we will now be asked not do that because the new cards are recyclable. The total amount of money paid for the card can be expended. Then the card is deposited in a recycling bin and another card purchased. Patrons cannot add additional money to their cards as they could in the past. The new cards will be swiped rather than inserted into a machine so it never needs to leave one’s hand. Therefore, it is hoped lost cards will no longer be a big problem. The cards will be available with $2, $5, $10 & $20 values. If you have old copy cards with money remaining on them, it can be transferred to a new card at service desks in the FHL. That policy will continue for the foreseeable future. The FHL does not want any researcher to feel cheated.

This new system has already been in use at other libraries in the Salt Lake City area. This will bring the FHL in step with other Salt Lake City LDS facilities – the Riverton FamilySearch Library and the new Church History Library at Temple Square.

Tomorrow, I’ll report on how the changeover seems to be going on the first day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Free England, Wales & Canadian Marriage Records

In honor of the upcoming royal wedding, the Easter bunny has delivered you access to free marriage records from England, Wales & Canada for the rest of April at This is a good opportunity for you to document your family trees in these countries. For more complete information on this limited time offer see the blog post by Susan Moncur. Thanks to Dick Eastman for the head-up.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Diging Up Ancestors at the FHL

I gave myself a reward for finishing the reviewing of the page proofs and creating of the index for my new Crash Course in Genealogy. It involved working on the opposite ends of our family tree. The first segment was to spend several days in the Napa Valley taking care of our two Nashville based grandsons – Noah who is almost 4 and Simon who is almost a year old while my son and daughter-in-law attended a wedding and enjoyed a couple of “date nights.”  Now that we have attended to the 21st century descendants, it is time to turn to 19th century ancestors.

I am in the midst of a research week at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The week has already been a great success because of a breakthrough I had on Friday. My wife has a great-grandmother who immigrated at age nine in 1867 with her family. The Castle Garden, predecessor of Ellis Island, record for the family said:
Country: Germany
Port of Departure: Bremen & Southhampton
Province of Last Residence: Prussia
Destination: United States
Some of you have already realized that Germany did not exist in 1867 and that emigration records from Bremen were generally retained only three years. 

I have been aware of this record for a long time. Until recently the next information I had on the family was the 1880 census when they were living in Elgin in northern Illinois west of Chicago—an area where the parents lived the rest of their lives. This record said everyone in the family was born in Prussia. That information was not specific enough to be useful as Prussia was often bigger than Germany is now.

I did uncover more information serendipitously when we visited the Kane County courthouse to get a copy of the record of the marriage between the great-grandmother and Denise’s great-grandfather. In that process we discovered a marriage for the great-great-grandmother as well. At the time we were unaware that her first husband had died and she had remarried in the 1890s -- about a quarter century after her arrival in Illinois. On this record she listed the names of her parents and her birthplace. This sounds great but the birthplace was “[illegible] Fehn, Germany.” There are at least 34 parishes in Germany that end in “fehn.” Fortunately, all of them are in the northwest part of the country.

Several months ago I finally found the 1870 census record for this family. This enumeration was taken about three years after their arrival in the US and they were living in central Illinois several counties away from Kane County. Of course their surname was misreported by the census taker thus making the information very difficult to find -- especially when we did not know where they lived at that time. The father’s name went from “Abba SCHEPKER” at Castle Garden to “Ubbo SCHIPKER” in 1870 to “Herman SHEPKA” in 1880.

The 1870 census is important when researching German Americans who had immigrated by that time as Germany became a completely unified country only in the following year. The family members were listed as having been born in Hanover which was consistent with the general area where the parish names ending in “fehn” are concentrated. This still was not enough to place their boots on the ground in a specific location in Europe.

The brick wall began to crumble recently when I discovered a pedigree from a genealogist in Germany posted on the Internet. It included a married couple that seemed to match the parents Denise’s great-great-grandmother listed on her application for her remarriage in the 1890s. Note that this information was not on the certificate of marriage but only on backup documentation.

When I found a community genealogy book for Timmel, Germany, it seemed to validate the pedigree I had found online. However, the couple that seemed to match our information about the great-great-great-grandparents, ended with their marriage in 1822. These newlyweds must have settled elsewhere other than Timmel. The prospective daughter was not born for 22 more years. How could it be determined whether this was the ancestor who would live in Illinois? 

The birthplace of the potential father was listed in the Timmel genealogy. It is about 40 kilometers from Timmel or about a day’s walk 2 centuries ago. However, no children attributed to him were christened in his birth parish. An international consultant at the FHL suggested that I had no recourse but to go through the parish records of the 34 parishes until I found the daughter or eliminated all of the parishes as possible locations. Have you ever tried to read early 19th century handwritten records written in Gothic script and probably recorded by at least three dozen different scribes? Not a pleasant prospect. 

It was time to get another opinion. Enter Baerbel Johnson, a German expert consultant at the FHL. I asked her to look at the illegible birthplace from the Illinois marriage application and give me her gut reaction as to which of the 34 parishes should be my starting point. She quickly zeroed in on one but warned that the library may not have church records for that parish. As subsequent events soon proved, she was right on both counts.

The “fehn” she instinctively picked turned out to be Berumerfehn. Among the 34 it was the one that was geographically closest to the parish in which the father in the Timmel genealogy was said to have been born and in which I had previously failed to find the immigrant ancestor. Also there are no microfilmed church records for Berumerfehn at FHL. However, all was not lost. I quickly found a community genealogy, for the nearby town of Hage, in which the entire immigrant family was listed. By the way, papa’s name was listed in the Familienchronik der Kirchengemeinde Hage as Ubbo Herrmann SCHEEPKER. As a bonus for 21st century eyes and brains these community genealogies are typeset in normal fonts!

As a result Denise has been able to add at least two more generations past her two immigrant great-great-grandparents. On some lines a total of six generations have been added. I’m having fun at the FHL.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

111 Marker Y-chromosome Results Back From The Lab

My report on extending my Y-chromosome test for markers 68 to 111 are back from the lab. Actually, they have probably been back since the middle of the week. However, it appears that the testing company has not yet refined their logistical structure fully support customers taking this new test. So far I have not had the notice that I have come to expect from Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) when new results have been posted. That kind of snag may be expected with the first few batches of results.  

For now I know what my results are but that is fairly meaningless. I may have been in the first batch to be tested. DNA test results for genealogical purposes really only take on meaning when they can be compared with the results of significant others. 

The results were originally promised by the end of May but are already posted to my results page at FTDNA. I hope such prompt turn-around service will continue. I have a distant cousin in the next batch who so far has matched me 67/67. I eagerly await his results so that we can start establishing a base line for the DNA of our common ancestor.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

One Day DNA Test Sale

I realize this is short notice. My mitigating circumstance is that my priority the next few days are my 3 year old and almost 1 year old grandchildren who are visiting from Nashville. I hope you were forewarned of the possibility of this flash sale by my previous post. If you do order today, be sure to use the sale discount code and always order through a project if possible for the best price and follow-up contacts. Below is what Family Tree DNA says about the sale:

DNA Day is April 15th! Starting at 12:00 PM on April 14th, join the celebration!

New customers:
Y-DNA12…… $59
Y-DNA37…… $129
mtDNA……… $59
Family Finder… $199
Family Finder + Y-DNA12… $258
Family Finder + mtDNA…… $258
Family Finder + mtFullSequence + Y-DNA67 …  $657

Y-DNA12 add-on …  $59
Y-DNA12 to 37…… $69
Y-DNA37 to 67…… $79
Y-DNA12 to 67…… $148
mtDNA add-on ……  $59
mtFull Sequence upgrade …  $199
mtFull Sequence add-on ... $219
Family Finder add-on …  $199

To take advantage of these promotional prices use the coupon code: DNADAY2011

The coupon code will expire on Friday at midnight (CT).

Please note, the Y-DNA67 to 111 upgrade will remain at the introductory rate of $101 (no coupon necessary) until the end of this promotion. The price will be $129 going forward.

Payment must be received at the time of the order. Valid only on products listed. No substitutions. This promotion was announced in advance, therefore no adjustments will be made on previous purchases. Offer valid from 12:00 PM CT on Thursday, April 14, until 11:59 PM CT on April 15, 2011.

This promotion is not valid in combination with any other promotions. Family Tree DNA reserves the right to cancel any order due to unauthorized or ineligible use of discounts
and to modify or cancel these promotional discounts due to system error or unforeseen problems. Subject to change without notice.        

Sunday, April 10, 2011

23andMe has early DNA Day Sale

CeCe Moore in a post on her Your Genetic Genealogist blog today provided information about a sort of under the radar sale by 23andMe. As some of you know know April 15th has been designated DNA Day. Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), a partial competitor of 23andMe,  has been trying to create buzz on Facebook by saying that it will announce a sale on DNA Day if its page attracts 12,000 "likes" by then. It appears that 23andMe has fired a preemptive shot.

If you are thinking of getting a DNA test, this competition may be good news. However, a word or two of caution is appropriate in understanding the offerings of the two companies. They only compete head on on some of their products.

23andMe offers autosomal DNA testing and testing for certain health related genes. The results can be used to predict mitochondrial (maternal) haplogroups for everyone and both mitochondrial and Y-chromosome (paternal) haplogroups for males. Autosomal testing can also detect most relationships up to third cousins, about half of 4th cousins, and a few more distant cousins. It cannot help you follow particular paternal (surname) or maternal lines as some other tests assist. Basically autosomal testing is good for close relationships in recent generations. Under the current marketing plan, 23andMe requires a monthly subscription for ongoing access to your data and any new developments. It also offers health questionnaires and correlates the results with the DNA of members to try to identify new relationships between genes and health conditions.

FTDNA offers autosomal testing for both males and females similar to that offered by 23andMe. For now at least, FTDNA requires an upfront fee for testing but no ongoing fee for access to their database. In addition to autosomal testing, FTDNA offers a range of Y-chromosome tests from the entry level 12 markers to the recently announced 111 markers. These tests are very useful for paternal surname projects. FTDNA also offers three levels of mitochondrial tests that can be taken by both males and females. These are useful in determining deep ancestry for both genders along their maternal line (mother's, mother's mother's....line).

While the two labs offer some similar products, each offers some that the other does not. Their pricing strategies are different--at least for now. So if you are about ready to test, carefully examine both the product lines and pricing structures. But do it quickly. 23andMe's sale will probably be over before the sale begins at FTDNA later this week. An over-simplification of the differences between the two is that FTDNA offers tests more specifically aimed at genealogists but 23andMe offers tests of interest to genealogists and offers some direct to consumer health information as well. Check out CeCe's blog because 23andMe may not be showing the sale on its site yet. If you have had experience with either or both labs, I would appreciate your comments below.

All of us benefit from the competition. For now at least it is difficult to make direct comparisons of test results from one lab to the other.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Population Finder Traces Deep Ancestry

The Population Finder feature at Family Tree DNA is now in beta testing as part of the analysis of autosomal DNA for those who have had the Family Finder Test. Adjustments will probably be made as more experience is gained and the database of tested individuals continues to grow. Below are my results at the moment:
Click on the image to open a clearer version.

I suspect, but do not know, that the orange sliver of purported Middle Eastern descent above comes from my mom's side. A first cousin on my dad's side shows 100% European. At the moment I hypothesize that this part of my DNA is at least in part the result of a maternal line that migrate out of Egypt and around the southern edge of the Mediterranean. They arrived much later than most of the inhabitants of European. I can pick up their paper trail in Switzerland around 1600.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Y-chromosome Test Extended to 111 Markers.

FTDNA just announced to project administrators its long rumored expansion from 67 markers to 111 markers for its most complete Y-chromosome test. In the release the company said:

We are excited to announce the launch of our new Y-DNA111 test!

This test includes a panel of 111 Y chromosome Short Tandem Repeat (STR) markers.* With 44 additional markers, Y-DNA111 is the highest resolution Y-DNA test offered by any company in the world.
The Y-DNA111 test is recommended for customers who already have close matches at the 67 marker level and are looking to tighten the calculation for the time to Most Recent Common Ancestor (tMRCA).** Due to the specialized nature of this test and in order to evaluate the potential benefit of this type of upgrade, we ask that customers with Y-DNA12, 25, or 37 results upgrade to 67 markers first before considering the 111 marker test.
With that in mind, this new test is now available as an upgrade for customers with existing Y-DNA67 results and also as a standalone test for individuals looking to prove a close relationship on the direct paternal line:
Y Refine 67 to 111 (Upgrade)

This expanded test may be of value to those who are trying to differentiate closely bundled lines in surname projects and also to those trying to discover if non-surname matches will continue if more markers are examined.

Searching using the new FamilySearch Catalog

FamilySearch is now the the throes of a major upgrade of its digital presence. Sometimes progress comes with a few bumps along the way. Two such bumps are printing issues and catalog issues. Based on feedback I have been receiving from researchers and librarians, you might want to fine tune your FamilySearch explorations for a while until the transition is more complete and more of the unexpected consequences are resolved.

In this post I'll concentrate on the issues experienced in searching the catalog. In order to find items added to the catalog in the last year or two, the best approach is to search the old catalog. If you do you will be invited to "Try the updated site." Apparently, the old catalog is the tool to use if you are looking for books and microfilm that are actually available in the Family History Library. However, the updated site offers a tremendous amount of exciting and recently uploaded digital images. To maximize your search results, you may need to choose your search tool carefully for the interim. 

Below are more detailed comments from FamilySearch staff:

From Steven J. Fox:

 I am the Manager of Cataloging and Digital Browse for FamilySearch. I am also the Product Manager for the Family History Library LIS and the old Family History Library Catalog on the old FamilySearch site.
 The old catalog, which we are beginning to refer to here in FamilySearch as the classic catalog, is updated with new data and corrections every hour. The new catalog  has not been updated since it was brought up a year ago, and the data then was several months old. In addition, there are some features of the classic catalog that are still to be implemented in the new, such as the ability to display locations of items in family history centers.
 I am working with the manager and developers of the new catalog to get an update working, hopefully sometime this summer, and add missing features late in this year.

Here is additional feedback from Robert Kehrer, product manager of the new catalog:
 The catalog search experience on the website is only partially complete. We appreciate the many users who have tested the tools currently available and provided feedback. Some patrons may find that the full functionality offered on the old site is essential to their research. For these patrons we have kept the old site available.
 We expect that in coming months we will be fixing many known issues and delivering additional capabilities which will make the new site superior to the old one. Among these anticipated features are:
 • Related places, See Also places, Alternative place names 
 • Historical place notes
 • Jurisdictional levels for a place 
 • Improved printing of catalog titles 
 • Author and subject search results grouped by author and subject
 • Support for searching asian language titles 
 • Proper handling of periodical titles
 • Microfilm ordering integration

Monday, April 4, 2011

Crash Course in Genealogy

I just got my first look at the cover of my new book. Pretty cool if I do say so myself. Some of you may know that the cover is a part of the book about which publishers allow authors less than no input. Although Amazon and the publisher's flyer say it will have 145 pages, the index, on which I am now putting the final touches, will begin on page 215. If any of you are interested in more information, including a code good for 20% off the list price, a flyer from the publisher is available.    
Elizabeth, the answer to your question from last week is that there will be an ebook version available.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gwyneth Paltrow's Story on WDYTYA

Gwyneth Paltrow will find out more about who she thinks she is tonight on NBC at 8 PM (7 PM Central). You can view a short sneak preview now. Corporate sponsor, Ancestry has this to say about tonight's episode in its blog:

"Ever get to a point in your research when it seems like your life and your ancestors’ lives are running parallel to one another? On tonight’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? actress Gwyneth Paltrow comes face to face with this scenario. By first discovering the trail of an immigrant ancestor whose confidence in her ability to succeed brought her to America and, later, by proving a rumor that reveals a very spiritual branch of her family tree, Gwyneth connects herself directly to the past. And she learns what it takes to dig deeply enough into a story to truly understand why her ancestors chose the paths they did."

If you miss this episode or missed any of the previous ones on Lionel Richey, Tim McGraw, Kim Cattrall, Steve Buscemi, Rosie O'Donnell or Vanessa Williams, their full episodes can be viewed online. Short outtakes that were not aired on Who Do You Think You Are? are also available.

Civil War Records on Ancestry Are Free Next Week has just announced that your will be able to get free access their Civil War collections for the week of April 7-14. Some of Ancestry’s collections are regularly offered free. Of course these are inducements to get you as a paying subscriber. However, if you are trying to decide if Ancestry is worth the cost of a subscription, these are opportunities to investigate it while you are also investigating your Civil War ancestors.

This is not an April Fools joke! :-)