If you don’t understand your ancestors’ cultures you’ll make mistakes

When I research my wife’s and my ancestry, I sometimes make a subtle mistake: forgetting the differences of culture.

I’ve seen major cultural changes in my own lifetime, whether it’s social media’s major impact on truth, the internet’s change in how we consume news media, and the decreasing freedom that children have to explore the world without their parents.

Human culture changes dramatically, and in very little time. I know I have a tendency to assume that my ancestors’ cultures weren’t that different from my culture, and that can result in jumping to conclusions and making mistakes.

Let me give you a few examples just to highlight how crazy past cultural practices were.

Take Martin Luther’s marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525. The custom among ethnic Germans was that the marriage was consummated before the wedding—the marriage and the wedding were two distinct events, and the wedding at the church couldn’t take place if the marriage hadn’t been consummated.

That’s not the weird part, though: there had to be a witness to the consummation. As Eric Metaxas writes in his biography of Luther,

after the small ceremony, the couple were escorted to their bedroom in the cloister, where [Luther’s friend] Jonas did the curious honors, watching the two become one flesh literally and figuratively. There was often an observation deck above the bed, though this detail seems not to have been observed in this case.

Can you imagine that the witnesses to your marriage license didn’t just have to sign the paper, but that they had to watch you and your spouse have sex? Privacy had a completely different meaning in 1500s Holy Roman Empire.

What does this mean for genealogy? Because culture varied dramatically, the message here is to immerse yourself in the history of ancestors, especially when things don’t make sense. You can probably find a book about the daily lives of normal people for any period & country. If you look carefully, you may even find one with genealogists as the intended audience.

Let me give you some examples from my favorite book on Colonial culture: David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s seed.

On page 114, Fischer described Puritan death ways, saying “In early New England, corpses were hurried into the ground with little ceremony… The grave was marked by a simple granite rock, or a rough wooden paling.”

Virginians were so spread out that it was cumbersome to transport bodies to a church that could be miles away, so people were buried in graves in special gardens close to home. Tombstones were rarely used, again considering the cost to transport one. Besides, it was your garden, so you knew where the graves were.

To put it another way, you won’t find graveyards with tombstones of genealogical value in early New England or Virginia. And if you see records for these, be skeptical.
Onomastics or naming ways were also important. Fischer noted that Pennsylvania Quakers typically named their first son and daughter according to a strict pattern, of “honoring the mother’s father and the father’s mother” first. While it wasn’t a 100% thing, that gives you a great clue for getting to the next generation.

Virginians also typically named their first-born children after their grandparents, but in this case, it was the male line that mattered. The first-born son was named for his paternal grandfather, the second-born son after his father.

Virginians also used a mother’s maiden name as a forename for sons—for example, the son of Joseph Chew and Ruth Larkin was named Larkin Chew.

All great clues for discovering the next generation back.

By contrast, New England Puritans often named the first son after his father, and the first daughter after her mother. They also embraced necronyms or naming a newborn after a deceased sibling. Fischer notes that 80% of the time a child died, the next child born of the same sex was given the name of the deceased child.

Puritans also had the singular practice of closing their eyes, pointing to a page in the bible, and naming their child after that word. That’s why you’ll see names such as Thankful, Wrestling and Notwithstanding.

Re-read everything — Genealogy brick walls

Brick walls are frustrating. I’ve broken through dozens, but I have even more that I’ve been staring at for years. In this quick video, I’ll share one method of breaking through a brick wall and provide an illustrative example.

Quick version: just go back and re-read everything you’ve collected. Don’t just skim it. Read it, and anytime you encounter something that doesn’t add up, look at it more closely.

Let me say that again. Read. Everything. Closely. Because this one of the hardest things you will do in genealogy. Why? You have to fight yourself. You’ll place more weight on your memory—which is plastic and unreliable—than in the document in front of you. You’ll suffer from confirmation bias, which is when you ignore or discount evidence that doesn’t support your existing conclusion. You’ll be overconfident in how you interpreted a given document.

If you’re going to use this brick wall technique, make sure you have a good chunk of free time with few distractions, so you’ll have the patience to review things your brain won’t want to review.

Let me give you an example: Jane M Haggerty, my third great-aunt. I had pulled together a clear map from her birth in Delaware on 4 July 1852, through the 1870 U.S. Census, but she disappeared after that when she was in her twenties.

I figured she either died or got married but I couldn’t make any progress at all. It was like she just vanished. That was the case for two of her sisters as well. I was struggling with all three sisters, and one morning when my wife and kids were out of town, I decided to re-review everything I had.

One document had an oddity: a typed record of the Haggerty burial plot at Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia that my Uncle Jim had put together in 1989. A young woman named Mary J. Hunsinger and her three children were buried in that plot, but they weren’t anywhere in our family tree. I had just dismissed them the first few times I reviewed the document.

I also reviewed some notes my grandfather had written down one day when his dementia was in full force. Among other disconnected memories, he noted that his mother had given the title to the burial plot to his sister.

That meant old George Haggerty, Jane’s father, had purchased the lot, which I hadn’t realized. So if George owned that lot, why were four unrelated people buried there? It made no sense.

It was an oddity, so I ran it down. That’s the whole point of re-reviewing everything you have. If something doesn’t fit, or there’s a fact you missed, go check it out.

I searched for death records for a Mary J. Hunsinger and found a record for a Mary Jane Hunsinger whose date of death matched the one in the burial plot record. I was shocked to see that Mary Jane’s residence at death was 2213 Lombard Street, which was George Hagerty’s home in Philadelphia’s seventh ward. Then I looked up the death records of the three Hunsinger children, and two of the three had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. What was this family doing living with my 3rd great-grandfather and his family?

Could this be Jane M. Haggerty?

I looked back over everything I had on Jane M. Haggerty and noticed her baptismal record named her as Johanna Maria. I had never bothered to type out her full middle name, I just left it as “M” from when I first found her in census records.

Several of Jane’s sisters swapped their middle & first names at various points in their lives. Jane must have done the same. I’d found her, along with her three children. They weren’t unrelated strangers buried in George Hagerty’s burial plot. They were his family.
It’s worth noting that I figured this all out five years ago, in 2013. When drafting the script for this video in 2018, I noticed a baby named Lena Haggerty was buried in George’s plot as well. She wasn’t anywhere in my tree. Even though I had pored over that burial plot and discovered a tragic branch of my tree, I never bothered to investigate that entry.

Little Lena Haggerty had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. She was born to Jane’s brother, John Haggerty and his wife, Mary. John had died in 1880, and while his death certificate noted that was married at the time, I had no idea what his wife’s given name was until now.

Genealogy tools need to support more naming conventions

I just finished a video about differences in German naming conventions from today’s naming conventions in the U.S., and I started thinking about how dated and culturally biased most genealogy tools are.

Why do German naming conventions highlight this? Well, take a look this branch of my wife’s family tree in 1600s and 1700s Baden-Württemberg. Look at all those guys named Johann. Of course, they weren’t all named Johann, not really. Ethnic Germans from this period were typically known by their middle names, not their first names.

But Ancestry.com is completely beholden to Anglo-centric naming conventions and shortens those incredibly important middle names to a single letter. Ancestry also places a greater weight on that first name in searches, so I have to manually delete Johann to get meaningful results.

Another group of white, western Europeans has another variation on Anglo-centric naming: those of Spanish descent may have two surnames. The father’s first surname typically precedes the mother’s first surname. But modern sources tend to be anglo-centric, and the first surname is the only one recorded. When I was researching my sister’s partner’s Cuban ancestors, I had all sorts of trouble with the incorrect way ancestry.com’s search tools handled family names.

And it’s not like I’m not being hyper politically correct or something here. I’m talking about different practices of three different groups of white western Europeans. But all the genealogy tools out there only support a single cultural norm.

Still, genealogy isn’t just a Western European hobby. Working in the tech sector, my co-workers come from all around the world, and everybody is interested in their family history. For example, I know that Brahmin Hindus have maintained detailed genealogies across twenty+ generations. I was also told of a massive boulder in Mongolia upon which one Mongol family carved their family history over the course of generations.

So… if you’re of Han Chinese ancestry and record your family name first and your given name second, genealogy tools force you to use the anglo-centric convention. Or you’re of Egyptian Muslim ancestry, and prior to name standardization about a century ago (when people were required to use their paternal grandfather’s given name as a surname), your ancestors were typically known by your father’s name and possibly a tribal name. I might have been known as Michael bin Yusuf or Michael bani O’Neill, and I’m quite sure Ancestry.com’s search tool would return every single ibn and bani as a match.

Thing is, these aren’t hard things to build into code. Again, I work in the tech sector, and I can see in my mind how to abstract multiple naming conventions from the storage layer.

But I don’t think any genealogy tools company has bothered to do the work, not because it’s hard, but because it would be different.

Best way to capture hard-copy citations

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes, and have developed some guidelines for avoiding them.

The fifth one was not citing sources, which refers to writing down a fact you discovered in a non-digital source but forgetting to write down where you found it.

I’ve done that. Drove me nuts when I wanted to go back to confirm some tidbit. My solution to this is sitting in my pocket, combined with two free apps, Office Lens and OneNote.

When you find a source, pull out your phone and take a photo. And don’t just take a picture of the page with the fact, take a picture of the container, too. For a book, the title page at the front is perfect. For a microfilm, if the machine can’t take images, just take a picture of the box before you start taking snaps of the screen. If the machine can scan images, name the file with the FHL film number, or something similar.

Pretty quickly, though, you’ll run into issues managing all those images. I ran into this app called Office Lens, available for iOS, Android & Windows. Full disclosure, I worked on the Office team at one point. Anyway, it’s a really simple premise: take a series of related photo with Office Lens, and the images are transferred to a page in OneNote.

Let me show you how it works. I’ve got this genealogy of Mayflower families. First, I take a picture of the title page. Then I add another image of the page I care about—I think you can take up to ten before you need to save. Then I save the images to OneNote and put in a quick title.

When I go to OneNote, all the images are there on one page. Even better, OneNote uses optical character recognition, so you can search through the text from your images.

It’s so much faster than what I used to do: typing in a citation and the information I wanted.

OneNote is also a big plus for capturing sources from websites. When you go to the Insert section of the ribbon and choose screen clipping, OneNote will not only copy your selection from the computer screen, but it will get the hyperlink from the browser as well, so you can go back to find that anytime.

Understanding German names in genealogy: they’re not the same as English names

If you have any ethnic German ancestors, you may wonder why so many of them are named Johann or Johanna. Or perhaps you have a pair of records that you’re convinced are for the same person, except that one is for Johann Peter Wagner, the other Hanes Peter Wagner.

Ethnic Germans had different cultural conventions for naming than the naming traditions we mostly follow in the U.S. today. I’ll highlight some of the common ethnic German naming conventions that can be confusing today.

  1. People were typically known by their middle name, not their first name.
  2. The names Johann and Johanna had multiple forms used interchangeably in documents.
  3. The letters “in” might be added to the end of women’s surnames.
  4. If a child died, parents might give a newborn the same name.

First, in German tradition, people were typically called by their second name, called a rufnamen or common name. Their first name was typically a saint’s name and was rarely used outside ecclesiastical records.

Johann Peter Wagner, for example, would have been called Peter, not Johann, in eighteenth century Baden-Württemberg or Pennsylvania. Johann Sebastian Bach would’ve been called Sebastian.

It’s not a hard-fast rule, though. For the most common names, such as Johann, Johanna & Maria, you can safely bet the middle name is the important one. For rarer names, such Philip Daniel or Ernst Bernhard, the rufnamen may have been the first name. If you’re lucky, the rufnamen will actually be underlined in the original text.

Things also get confusing in the U.S. As families anglicized, you’ll encounter a generation where the first name became the rufnamen, and that kid baptized Johannes Peter was actually called John not Peter.

Second: Johanna and Johann. These were the two most common saint’s names, and because they’re so common, they ended up with multiple forms.

Johanna and Anna, for example, are interchangeable. If you see two records that seem perfect matches except that one says Johanna, the other Anna, don’t worry about it. They’re the same name.

The same goes for the many variants of Johann, including Johannes, Hanes, & Hans.

Put all of this together, and you can understand how a child born in 1874 to German immigrants and baptized Johann Peter Wagner ended up with the name Honus Wagner on his plaque at baseball’s hall of fame.

Third, when you’re looking at ethnic German parish records, you may see a woman whose surname ends with the letters “in” such as Wagnerin or Muellerin. The “in” is a grammatical construct, it’s actually not part of her surname. Skip the “in” and just record Wagner or Mueller.

Finally, you may encounter baptismal records for more than one child with the same name. For example, in my tree, I have two Johann Jacob Schlauches born to Ernst Bernhard Schlauch and A. Elizabeth Frick, one in 1715, the other in 1717. This means that the child born in 1715 died before the birth of the second, and they were re-using the name. This practice was very common, even though it might seem tasteless today.

DIY: Board & Batten wainscotting calculator

I completed a Board & Batten wainscoting project in my daughter’s room this weekend. Well, almost completed: I have some touch-up sanding/painting to do, but that’s only an hour or three of work.

I had planned on doing two walls, but Home Depot didn’t have enough panel board so I only did one plus the head of the bed.

But two walls presented a challenging math problem. How do you get similarly spaced battens that don’t run over wall outlets? The answer was to put together a little Excel worksheet that does the calculations for me.

Here’s how it works: open the sheet and enter in values for everything highlighted yellow. Most of it’s on the summary page, where you enter the width of your batten molding, as well as the length of each wall.

Then you need to visit each wall sheet and input the location of any wall sockets. You can also give each wall a more descriptive name if you’d like.

With that information, go back to the Summary sheet and start changing the number of battens on each wall. You want the opening widths on all four walls to be relatively similar. No one will notice if they’re half-an-inch different, but several inches different will be noticeable.

More important, if the Socket Errors column turns red, it means that one of your battens will cross a wall socket. Obviously, you can work around that, but I find it challenging enough to cut socket holes in the wall panels correctly. I don’t want to have to do crazy cuts on the battens.

Jumping to conclusions in genealogy

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes. The second common mistake in that video is jumping to conclusions.

There are lots of ways to look at this, but to me, it’s about performing a reasonably exhaustive search, and resolving conflicting or contradictory evidence. At the end, I should have a sound, coherent and reasonable conclusion.

My biggest mistake on this front was Willard George Harding. I was tracing my wife’s family back and encountered a brick wall with this gentleman in Washington state. He was born in 1868 in Maine according to several different census records, including the 1887 and 1889 Washington Territorial census where the 20-plus-year-old appeared alone in Skagit County, with no other Hardings or obvious family in sight. I had no death certificate, so I didn’t have any leads on his parents.

With a name, a year and a place, I started looking for Will Hardings in the 1870 and 1880 census in Maine. I needed to eliminate contradictory evidence, so I tried to guarantee that I didn’t find someone who showed up in Maine when Willard was in Washington state, or who had died. There were several, but most of them were obviously different people than Willard.

The twelve-year-old Willie Harding living in Cumberland, Maine in 1880 fit well, though—I couldn’t find any record of him after 1880, and he was about the right age, twelve, rather than the thirteen I was looking for. In fact, considering the Washington Willard was born in July, and the 1880 census recorded in June, I could even argue the two were the same age. Woot!

I then kept building my family tree, going back all the way to the Mayflower, finding along the way all sorts of great stories, such as a Salem, Mass. many-greats grandmother executed for witchcraft, and a many-greats grandfather who murdered his wife because she didn’t keep the house clean enough.

But… was my story about Willard coherent and reasonable? No. While it was possible for a young man to make the journey across the plains alone, it was truly extraordinary for the time for someone to emigrate without family and friends either with them, or at their destination. I also hadn’t resolved two pieces of conflicting evidence: in the 1900 census, Willard reported that his parents were born in Canada, but in the 1880 census, Willie Harding’s parents reported that they were born in Maine.

The root of my mistake was that I had I failed to perform a reasonably exhaustive search for people with the same name and age. My census search was limited to Maine. Once I expanded my search to include Canada, Massachusetts, New Hampshire & Vermont, I found an 1881 census record for a Willard Harding of exactly the right age and place of birth living in Canada with the Flagg family.

And there were plenty of Flaggs recorded in the Washington census right next to Willard, including an Augusta Flagg. Her 1877 Grand Manan marriage record to Allen Flagg revealed her maiden name as Harding, and she turned out to be Willard’s mother, who descended from a line of New York loyalists who moved to St. John, Canada after the Revolution.

Willard hadn’t made the trip across the plains alone. He traveled from Canada to Washington, not only with his mother, but with his step-father and huge extended step family.

Onomastics: How baby names can help break through genealogical brick walls

Onomastics or cultural naming conventions can yield genealogical clues that may lead you to previous generations.

My first examples come from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which is a long, dense but surprisingly accessible book on Colonial American cultural traditions.

The most useful naming convention from a genealogically perspective is the colonial Virginian custom of using a mother’s maiden name as a forename for sons—for example, the son of Joseph Chew and Ruth Larkin was named Larkin Chew. Anytime you see an odd forename in Virginia, look for people from the same place with that odd forename as a surname, and you may very well get closer to the maternal line.
Virginians also typically named their first-born son after their paternal grandfather, and the second-born son after the father. In some families, you’ll see that pattern repeated for generations.

Scotch-Irish tended to follow the same pattern, naming the first-born son after the paternal grandfather, and the second- or third-born son after the father. The preferred different names than Virginians, but the pattern was the same.

Quakers followed the pattern of “honoring the mother’s father and the father’s mother” by naming the first-born daughter and son after those individuals. While it wasn’t a 100% thing, if you know you’re looking at the eldest son and have a maiden name for the mother, you probably know the maternal grandfather’s name.

New England Puritans don’t have as helpful patterns, however. They often named the first-born son after his father, and the first-born daughter after her mother. If you’ve figure out birth order, you’ve probably already worked out who the parents were.

Puritans embraced necronyms or naming a newborn after a deceased sibling. Fischer notes that 80% of the time a child died, the next child born of the same sex was given the name of the deceased child. That won’t help you break through brick walls, but it will help you avoid the mistake of thinking you have two families with identically named kids born in different years.

Puritans also had the singular practice of closing their eyes, pointing to a page in the bible, and naming their child after that word. That’s why you’ll see names such as Thankful, Wrestling and Notwithstanding. The best of these is Fly’s Fornication. Poor woman.

Moving to the Catholic tradition, there are two important naming conventions. The first is that of naming a child based on the Saint’s day the child was baptized or born on. This generally isn’t very useful genealogically, as there are multiple calendars of Saint’s Days, and many of the saints had similar names.

The second is naming a child after a godparent, and this also applies to Lutherans and other sects that follow this tradition. The naming by itself isn’t particularly important, but the godparent is. Being a godparent was not a casual matter: that person was supposed to take an important role in the child’s life, especially their spiritual life, so godparents were almost always close friends or family members. That means you should always take a close look at the sponsors on a baptismal record for potential family members.

Expecting precision with dates – Common genealogy mistakes

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes and have some guidelines for avoiding them.

In this video, I’ll cover the second error, expecting dates to be exact. They’re not, though, and I see four different types here:

  1. Calculations based on age made by modern transcribers.
  2. People not knowing a date, or just making a best guess.
  3. Flat out lying about your age.
  4. Contemporary… imprecision or flexibility, for lack of a better word.

For the first, lots of genealogy websites try to make your life easier by taking numerical ages on records on subtracting the year of the record to give you a birth year. I definitely find it helpful—I’m much better at math with variables and ranges than I am with doing subtraction in my head.

This matters because the calculations can be a year or so off. For example, the 1860 census was taken over a five-month period in the latter half of the year, so a 27-year-old with a birthday in December would have been born in 1832, while a twenty-seven-year-old born in May would have been born in 1833.

One of my core principles in genealogy research is to read everything, and that means examining the original, which will tell you clearly if a year was actually recorded, or if it was just calculated by the transcriber.

For the second, look at my second great-grandmother, Mary Shiel Gallagher. I know the story of her life from family oral history. She was born near Swinford, Ireland, spent some time in Worcestershire, England, and then immigrated to Philadelphia. Without that story, though, I’d have real trouble tracing her using birth years, with different records suggesting she was born 1844, 1849, 1851 and 1857. I don’t think Mary even knew what year she was born.

For the third, people probably started lying about their age the moment we started recording birth years. Maybe a woman wants to marry a younger man, but that’s not culturally acceptable. So… she says she’s the same age. Maybe a boy gets caught up in a patriotic fervor and tells a military recruiter he’s two years older than he really is so he can join the army. Anyway, I’ve got a whole video dedicated to this one—you can access it via the card up above.

The last one is the probably the most difficult to understand for us today: I mean, I know the birth years for everyone in my family (and my wife’s family), and from that I can get marriage years pretty much right on. But… precise dates are part of our culture. Go back 150 years, did it really matter if you told a census taker the right age for everyone in your family? Not really.
The only times your age really mattered were for minors trying to marry, inherit or enter into a contract.

Your ancestors lied about their age

People lie about their age. When I turned twenty-eight eleventy decades ago, I decided that was a good age, and stuck with it until I was in my mid-thirties. Kids say they’re older so they can use online services such as Facebook. Adults claim they are younger for fear of ageism in the workplace.

And people have been lying about their age for centuries for a variety of reasons. That means you’ll encounter it when researching your own ancestry. So what do you do when you find records where someone’s year of birth is off? In this five-minute genealogy video, I’ll share the questions I ask when I see discrepancies in birth year on different records, and share a couple illustrative examples.

  1. How likely was it that the person reporting the information knew the facts?
  2. How carefully have I checked for another person with the same name?
  3. Do other facts support the relationship?
  4. Is there a reasonable story for the discrepancy?

I was reminded of this recently, when I broke through a brick wall with my wife’s Palatine ancestors in Pennsylvania. The wall I had broken through was Philip’s line, finding birth records for both his parents and his older siblings in the village of Neckarbischofsheim in the Palatinate.

I knew that immigration from that part of Germany at that time wasn’t just families. Portions of entire villages packed up and moved to Pennsylvania over the course of a few years, and I wondered if Jacobina could be from Neckarbischofsheim as well.
I had an 1804 church death record for Philip’s wife, Jacobina Heyl nee Zeigler, that recorded her date of birth as 1 Jun 1740. Searching for Jacobina Ziegler in the same village, turned up a baptismal record with a birthdate of 1 June 1736.
Same village as Philip Heyl, some date of birth, just four years earlier. This had to be the woman who married Philip Heyl in Philadelphia.

Back to my four questions. First, check the person reporting the information. Unfortunately, I can’t know whether the person who reported Jacobina’s death knew what they were talking about.

Second, check for similar names. I searched for birth records for women with the same name between 1730 and 1750, and found three born in September 1740, October 1741, and November 1742. But the mismatch in months didn’t feel compelling.
Third, I looked for supporting evidence the family immigrated to Pennsylvania, and found that a man with the same name as Jacobina Ziegler’s father arrived in Philly in 1751. I would have liked a little more, but its not bad.

Fourth, was the story reasonable? I think so. I have seven different primary sources showing Philip was born in 1738 or 1739, and a reliable secondary source reporting his birth on 15 September 1739. If Jacobina were born in 1736, she would be over three years older than her husband, but if she said she was born in 1740, she would be nine months younger. Even in today’s culture, it’s more common for women to marry older men. In 1740?

As another example, my second great-grandmother, Mary Shiel Gallagher, was sort of the reverse of Jacobina Ziegler. I know the story of her life from her daughter via my uncle—she was born near Swinford, Ireland, spent some time in Worcestershire, England, and then immigrated to Philadelphia. I have no idea when she was born, with different records suggestion 1844, 1849, 1851 and 1857.

Her husband wasn’t much better, with census and immigration records suggesting 1847, while his death certificate suggested 1855.

My conclusion stops with my first question: I don’t think anyone, including Mary, knew exactly when she was born.
With Jacobina Ziegler, I could use a convincing narrative about her birthdate to associate two records with different birth dates. For Mary Shiel, I have to rely on other methods—namely, oral history and her father’s name—to tie records together. The inconsistent birth years are only helpful as supporting evidence.