Friday, May 23, 2014

"Cocktail Party Conversation"

Last year I volunteered at an Ancestry Day event in San Francisco and earned a free AncestryDNA kit.  It took several months for me to receive my kit because of some unexplained glitches on the Ancestry site that prevented me from ordering (I personally think it's because I was using an American Express card).  Eventually, one of the nice people at Ancestry who kept suggesting other ways I could try to enter my information figured out it would be a lot faster and easier if she just input the information, and voilà!  My kit was ordered.

Of course, when I received the kit, I meant to send it back right away . . . yeah, that didn't happen.  I think it took me about a month or so before I finally had time to read the instructions, register the kit, come up with enough saliva to fill to the line, and send it off.  I can't say I was waiting with bated breath to see my results, but I was curious as to what Ancestry would come up with.

A week ago, I got a message in my inbox:  "Your AncestryDNA results are in!"  So I dutifully clicked the link and went to to learn what discoveries would be revealed.

Well, at least some of it is realistic.  Ancestry says I'm 48% European Jewish — check.  My mother was Jewish and solidly Eastern European as far as I know.  Not as much actual documentation as I'd like (with three family lines in Grodno gubernia, that's pretty much impossible), but very reliable otherwise.

I have much better documentation on my father's side of the family, going back several generations.  He is primarily English Quaker and other English on his mother's side, and German Lutheran on his father's.  Some of the English goes back to Belgium, and some of the German to Switzerland.  The paper trail is very strong, with no evidence of nonpaternity events or undocumented adoptions.  So what does Ancestry say the rest of my background is?

Western Europe 34%
Ireland 12%
Scandinavia 2%
English less than 1%
Caucasus less than 1%
Middle East less than 1%
Italy/Greece less than 1%
Africa, American Indian, Asia, Pacific Islander 0%

The 34% Western European makes sense in context of my father's strong German background, plus the Belgian and Swiss connections.  Some Scandinavian is plausible given our English ancestry, since it is well known that Viking raiders made it to Great Britain.  Anything below 1% can safely be ignored, but even the Caucasus and Middle East could be legitimate with my mother being Jewish.

But less than 1% English?  And 12% Irish??!  Trust me, I've always wanted to be Irish, but it just ain't there.  My mother — remember I said she was Eastern European Jewish? — claimed we were part Irish on her side of the family.  Even though there are Irish Jews, that was wishful thinking on her part.  I have everything on the island of Great Britain from my father's side — English, Scottish (though probably border reivers, otherwise known as horse thieves), Welsh, and even Cornish — but absolutely no Irish.  And Ancestry says I'm 12%?  Just where are they thinking it came from?

I'm actually amused by this, however, not concerned in any way, because I keep in mind what Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, says over and over:  These results are nothing but cocktail party conversation, because the algorithms are built on extrapolation of data that are insufficient to give reliable information.  The companies may never have adequate data to give accurate information.  It's all smoke and mirrors, guys.

But maybe I'll raise a glass to myself next year on St. Patrick's Day anyway.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Visiting the Merced County Genealogical Society

Corey Oiesen and I had a great start for our trip to Merced on Saturday, where we were scheduled to make a presentation to the Merced County Genealogical Society on using the services of a professional genealogist.  I arrived a little early for our meet-up in Scotts Valley; she had generously offered to drive both of us to Merced (which would have been a four-hour trip for me from Oakland).  The journey was smooth with very little traffic, and we made it to the Merced County Public Library (a beautiful facility) early enough for both of us to get a library card and have time to eat some lunch.

Unfortunately, when we found the meeting room, we discovered that the third member of our panel, Sheri Fenley, was feeling under the weather and was not able to participate.  We missed having her contributions to the discussion.

About twenty-five people, a third of them guests, attended the meeting, and they gave us a warm welcome after a short introduction by Shari Stetson, the program coordinator and past president of the society.  Corey and I each gave a little background about ourselves and our resarch specialties, which between the two of us include adoption, forensic genealogy, French research, Jewish research, newspapers, and translation.  We then played tag team in giving an overview of when it is helpful to contact professional genealogist to help you with your research.

Often people don't think about hiring a professional genealogist until they're stuck at a brick wall.  But it's helpful to consult a professional when you're starting work in an area new to you to get an overview of what kinds of records are available, where to find them, and the kinds of pitfalls to look for.  It can be useful to hire a professional to help you organize the materials you already have and look at them with a fresh analytical eye to give you an idea of what direction you should go next in your search, even if you're not stuck.  Subject specialists have expertise and knowledge accumulated over many years that can effectively create shortcuts in finding the information you need.  We discussed the great resources on the APG Web site, where you can search for a researcher by specialty, proximity to the area you are researching, or proximity to you.  There is also a page with advice on hiring a professional genealogist.

We allowed questions from attendees throughout the presentation.  There were a few inquiries about working as a professional (both of us explained the meanings of our company names), but primarily we answered many questions about where to look for records to help break through some of their brick walls.  When we wrapped up after a couple of hours, we got a rousing round of applause, and everyone seemed to appreciate the information we had been able to share with them.

On our way home, Corey and I had an unusual bit of excitement — two young men in a nearby car flirted with us for about a mile.  Not what two middle-aged women had expected to happen!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Panel of Professional Genealogists to Pontificate in Merced

Next Saturday, May 17, I'll be giving a different sort of presentation than the ones I normally do.  Three members of the Northern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists — Sheri Fenley, Corey Oiesen, and I — will be at the Merced County Genealogical Society to talk about what it's like to work as a professional genealogist and when it's a good time to call one to help you with your research.  The meeting is free and open to anyone interested in attending.  If you're in the area, come by and give a listen!  Sheri and Corey are great people, and it should be a lively and interesting panel.  The talk will be held at the Gracey Research Room in the Merced County Library, 2100 O Street, Merced, CA 95340 from about 12:30–2:30 p.m., after the society's business meeting has finished.

Calling in the Pros

Have you wondered when it might be the right time to ask a professional genealogist to help you with your research and how to go about it?  Researchers are a varied lot:  Some are good at translations or reading old records in other languages; some are experienced in archival research; others are adept at writing.  This panel of members of the Northern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists will discuss questions such as:

When does one hire a professional genealogist?
What's involved?
What is the cost?
Where does one find such a person?

More specific questions about the panelists' areas of expertise will also be welcomed.

These are the bios of my copresenters:

Sheri Fenley has been researching for ten years as a professional.  She does research in Northern California, with an emphasis in San Joaquin County, Gold Rush counties, 19th-century San Francisco, and lineage society applications.  She earned a certificate in Family History Studies from Monterey Peninsula College and has attended the Family History Conference at Brigham Young University and two years at Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research.  She is president of the San Joaquin Genealogical Society.

Corey Oiesen is a professional genealogist and founder of Genealogy Heroes research consultancy based in Santa Cruz, California.  She offers her clients writing, editing, genealogical research, and French translation.  She serves as Communications Officer for the Association of Professional Genealogists and is a teaching assistant for the Boston University Genealogical Studies program.  She earned her certificate in genealogical studies from Boston University in February 2010, a certificate in genealogy through Monterey Peninsula College in 2011, and completed the ProGen Study Course (group 4) in 2011.  She holds an MBA in international business from Georgia State University and a B.A. in international studies/French from Virginia Tech University.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Maps, World War I Heroes, Jewish Sperm Donors, and a Synagogue

I've recently come across some interesting opportunities to help with genealogy projects.  Maybe you can assist with one of them!

The New York Public Library is looking to crowdsourcing from "citizen cartographers" to identify details on digitized 19th-century New York City atlases.  The Building Inspector project allows you to use a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone.  If you know New York City well, you'll be a valuable addition to the team.  The library plans to use the information to make the maps interactive and link them to other historical digitized documents.

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In conjunction with the UK's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the British newspaper The Sun has launched a campaign to create a photo database of the gravesites of Victoria Cross (VC) servicemen, and to bring attention to the sites that are most in need of restoration.  Some of the VC honorees date back to the Crimean War and the 1857 Indian Mutiny.  A list of 544 VC burials is included on the Web page.

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A memorial plaque for Second Lieutenant John Douglas Lightbody of the Royal Air Force, who died November 4, 1918, just days before the end of World War I, will be unveiled in Scheldewindeke, Belgium on November 10, 2014.  The organizers of this year's ceremony are looking for any living relatives of Lt. Lightbody, both to share information about him and possibly to attend in person.  An online article has more information about Lightbody and the search for relatives, including the e-mail address of a person to contact.

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Attention Jewish Men:  Did you donate sperm during the 1980's?  Seeking light-featured Jewish men who acted as anonymous sperm donors in the Los Angeles/UCLA area, between (but not limited to) 1981–1985.  Your offspring are seeking medical information.  Please contact (for anonymous communication, create a new Gmail account).

Please feel free to share this with *everyone* you know, repost, attach to mailing lists, etc.  The more people who see this, the more likely it is that will find the person he is searching for.

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I never post about fundraising efforts, but this is a little different.  A film raising money via crowdfunding is pledging half of the money to help restore the subject of the film.  The synagogue of Sabbioneta, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage site but has suffered damage due to recent earthquakes.  The film, an independent comedy, is about a tombstone found in the town's Jewish cemetery.  Read more about the film and the synagogue here.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Boy Seamen in the British Royal Navy

If you had ancestors or other relatives who served in the British Royal Navy as "boy seamen", the book Band of Brothers:  Boy Seamen in the Royal Navy, 1800-1956 might be of interest.  It discusses the institution of boys entering the navy at a young age and the training and indoctrination they experienced.  This book was published in 1996 (see full information at the end of this post), but I only came across it recently at a seller of military books with a table at a World War I seminar.

Boy Seaman was an actual "rating" (somewhat similar to a rank) in the Royal Navy until 1956, when "three centuries of tradition" ended.  This should mean, in theory, that boy seamen existed as early as roughly 1656, but the author, David Phillipson, actually discusses only as far back as the 18th century.

Phillipson asserts that the induction process and training of young boys in the Royal Navy did not substantially change over the course of more than a century and a half.  It is difficult to gauge the accuracy of this claim, as two thirds of the book (the final two chapters) is the author's own reminiscences of his time as a Boy Seaman.  The first three chapters, which include quotations from some boys of earlier periods, also include several of his own memories and observations.

The first chapter ("Wooden Walls") focuses on the background of Boy Seamen and their earlier (informal) incarnation, "servants."  Most boys joined the navy for better economic opportunities, in times when only the oldest son in a family could expect to inherit, though a good number came from families with long seafaring traditions.  The rest of the chapter gives information about and quotes from boys through the early 1830's.  The second chapter ("Boys in the Victorian Navy") covers the period when Boy Seaman became a more codified position in the navy.  It does have material on the Victorian era, but also significant amounts of the author's comments on his own experiences.

Chapter 3, "The Dreadnoughts", is about the training schools that were established to teach young seamen their jobs.  Quotations range from 1824 to 1907, along with more of Phillipson's own commentary.  He makes an historical error at one point, claiming that 1904 was "from the closing years of Victoria's reign", when she actually died in 1901.  Chapters 4 and 5 are entirely Phillipson's descriptions of his experiences in the Boy Seaman training regimen.  I was surprised at his low opinion of Royal Marines.

As a warning, this book is British through and through, which might make understanding some of it difficult for American readers.  Beyond naval slang ("Navalese"), Phillipson regularly employs British slang, spelling (some of it nonstandard), and punctuation.  Even after rereading some passages multiple times, I at times was at a loss as to their meaning.  My overall appreciation for the information in the book, however, is still very high.  It includes an adequate index, but I wish the names of the boy seamen whose writings were quoted had been marked as such.

David Phillipson, Band of Brothers:  Boy Seamen in the Royal Navy, 1800-1956, Thrupp, England:  Sutton Publishing Limited, 1996.  New and used copies appear to be available through several sellers on and