Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unknown-Unknowns in Family History

“There are known knowns, there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know”—
Donald Rumsfeld, 2002.

Donald Rumsfeld made this interesting statement when he was the Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. This is a great quote, not only because it is a great example of bureaucratic double speak, but it also is an entertaining summary of the first rule of Family History research. That is: start with what you know and work backwards in time to what you don’t know.

In the beginning of family history research, whenever someone asks for my advice, I tell them to write down what you know. When you know what you know, it becomes easy to identify the information that you don’t know. And this opens up the path to decide the next steps in researching your family tree.

The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” help us to set goals for future research. If you don’t know grandma’s birthday, maybe you should set aside time and the resources to find out when grandma was born.

Slowly the information begins to flow and the “unknown unknowns” become “known unknowns” which eventually, through rigorous research, become “known knowns.”

Who would ever guess that Donald Rumsfeld was such a great family historian!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Switched At Birth

Once again, the following story reinforces the question for family historians: Is it truly important to know your biological parents? Isn't it just as vital to document the people who raised? Reference back to my "It takes a Village" essay.

This was posted by ABC News yesterday.

..Switched at Birth Girls Want to Stay With Wrong Moms
By LAMA HASAN Good Morning America – 21 hours ago
....A pair of 12-year-old girls who discovered they were accidentally switched at birth want to stay with the mothers who have been raising them rather than go to their real parents.

The girls have grown up just a few miles away from each other in the town of Kopeisk in the Ural Mountains of eastern Russia.

Their mothers gave birth in the same maternity ward just 15 minutes apart in 1999, and their infant daughters were inadvertently given the wrong name tags.

Their true identities were revealed after the ex-husband of Yuliya Belyaeva, one of the mothers, refused to pay for child care because his daughter, Irina, looked nothing like him. After conducting several DNA tests it emerged that neither adult was Irina's biological parent.

"The judge couldn't believe it," Belyaeva told the BBC. "She said she'd only seen cases like this on TV and didn't know what to advise us."

The DNA tests sent Belyaeva on a search for her own daughter. She remembered that when she was giving birth, another woman was also in labor in the same ward. She suspected that the maternity ward had mixed up their daughters.

"I made a photocopy of the DNA test results and went straight to the prosecutor's office. There I lodged an official complaint about being given the wrong baby in the maternity hospital," Yuliya said.

Yuliya finally took her search to the local police who managed to trace her biological daughter living just a few miles away with Irina's natural parents.

"It was true," Yuliya remembered. "Their daughter, Anya, was blond and looked just like me and my ex-husband. And our daughter was dark-skinned and had dark hair and looked like the other father. He's a Tajik, and she looked just like him."

"Suddenly my whole world turned upside down and inside out,'' she recalled.

While the girls admit that they were happy to have found each other, neither one wants to leave the family they grew up with even though they are not their biological parents.

"It's terrible for both of them," Yuliya told the BBC. "They've grown up with one set of parents, now they've found out they have a different mother and father. Neither child wants to leave their home. Irina keeps saying to me: 'Mum, please don't give me away!' I comfort her by saying: 'I would never do anything against your wishes. Nothing has changed. I'm still your mother.''

While both families are getting to know each other and are becoming closer, they're suing the hospital and demanding almost $160,000 in damages.

Stories of babies being switched at birth are rare. In 1953, a mix up occurred at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Heppner, Ore. It was only years later, in May 2009, that the now 56-year- old women discovered they were switched as babies.

DeeAnn Angell of Fossil and Kay Rene Reed of Condon learned about the mistake from an 86-year-old woman who was a former neighbor.

The former neighbor said that one of the girls' mothers, Marjorie Angell, insisted back in 1953 that she had been given the wrong baby after nurses returned from bathing them. Her concerns were ignored. With both sets of parents dead, the Reed and Angell siblings compared notes and family stories, learning that rumors of a mix-up had been around for years. Kay Rene Reed decided to get their DNA tested, and that confirmed the mistake.

They both say they just have to move forward with their lives now, and they celebrated their latest birthday together

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hi, It's Been Awhile

I'm back. After an absolutely overwhelming September, I am once again finding the energy and enthusiasm to write.

So, I am back. I am refreshed and ready once again to explore family history, research, and anything else that might generate interest.

To paraphrase the cliche, hold on because the bumpy ride is once about to begin!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Improving The Economy

I realize that this is just frustration taking over, but the Minnesota Historical Society announced budget cuts and layoffs today. It caused me to think:

Many years ago Jesse Jackson was running for President during a time when the economy was bad. I think it was 1980. Anyway, during the debates Jackson suggested that if the government stopped making so many bombs and devoted the money to items people actually use, the economy might improve.

I still wonder: if we make fewer bombs and manufacture more televisions, cars, tractors, refrigerators, or other household items, would the economy improve? Maybe we should try.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Some Good News For Minnesota History (A Reprint)

I published this article in my other blog: But today an article on was published condemning the quality of history teaching in the United States. I have chosen to reprint my thoughts on the matter.

The Mpls./St. Paul Star Tribune published an interesting article on-line that suggests Minnesota students are generally well informed about American History. Coming from a teaching background in Georgia, this is great news.

According to the article, teachers and student evaluators in Minnesota give students high marks for knowing the basics of U. S. History. Unfortunately they lack depth in their understanding. Students know who Thomas Jefferson was, that Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in disgrace, and the basics of World War II. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily understand Watergate or appreciate the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

This is a big deal. I once taught U. S. History at a university in Georgia where students didn’t know who won World War II!! It sounds like Minnesota is doing well to teach their children their history. Nationwide the news is not so good. A report quoted in the article notes that only 12 percent of 12th grade students, nationwide, are “proficient or better” in history. Anecdotal evidence puts Minnesota higher than that.

So, Minnesota students receive high marks. Yet, we can’t let the emphasis on Math and Science take away from teaching history. The phrase “well rounded education” exists for a reason. We need to make everyone who is involved in the education system realize that allowing history to take a back seat to other subjects is not an acceptable alternative.

We are doing okay, but we must do better.

Banking As the Corrupter of Society

Roy Kreitner recently published an interesting article about the perceptions of banks in 19th century United States. Published in an on-line magazine titled Common Place, he sets out to explain why banks were seen as the great corrupters of society in the Antebellum United States.

Kreitner explained that banks were not used as the safe haven for individual savings in the 1800s. “Antebellum banking in America was not, in fact, based on the numerous deposits of dispersed individuals,” he wrote. In quick summary, Kreitner suggested that banks were seen as evil because they promoted a sense of instant gratification. Credit was perceived as evil, a mechanism that allowed men to avoid hard work and still obtain the luxuries in life. As one historian described it, “patient accumulation was condemned.” Bank credit allowed individuals to invest in the dreams of the future. In other words, obtain something (bank loans) for nothing that will hopefully become something in the future. Many ambitious Americans did not agree that investing in the future was truly a weak investment at best. It was speculation of the worst kind, but a speculation that was rampant throughout society.

It is no wonder banks were perceived as institutions that corrupted and destroyed the moral fabric of society. These were organizations that promised easy returns on high risk investments in a society that could not afford failure in high risk times.

Kreitner writes an interesting article that warrants close examination.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Parentage: The Complexities of Genealogy

I have been sitting on this particular article for more than a year, debating whether to post or not. Well, a recent article in the New York Times has convinced me that I should sent this out. So, here goes:

A few years ago, in her office as First Lady, Hilary Clinton wrote a book titled, It Takes a Village. Although the book doesn’t have anything to do with Genealogy or Family History, the title implies an interesting idea for the field of Genealogy. Is a blood line truly the most important consideration in researching family history? If a person is adopted, does that diminish their family history? If it is impossible to trace their family line, does that diminish the research potential?

Sometime ago, I mentioned on my blog ( 26 July 2007) that an author had estimated that in some communities in the country 25 percent of all Americans do not know, or have a misconception about their parentage. If this statistic is accurate, how does that affect Genealogy and Family History?

Here is where Hilary Clinton’s book ties into this discussion. Maybe we should consider the issue of environment over genetics. Is it more important to consider the parents a person grows up with, rather than the individual’s genetic make-up? The “nature vs. nurture” debate will go on forever. In genealogy and family history this is a very personalized question and the answer can be as simple or complex as you want. Do you consider the man and woman who raised you your parents? Or, do we really need to track down the sperm donor in an effort to complete our family trees?

And, with the advances in science, what does all of this do to our family trees? The questions become more and more difficult to answer. Because Family History is such a personalized process, how you answer the questions are also very personal. The discussion, though, will challenge us all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution

After watching the Sunday morning news programs, and taking 24 hours to calm down, I find it fascinating that in the discussions about the meaning of the Constitution, NO ONE talks about Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers! Remember, Jefferson was busy in Paris when the Constitution was written while Hamilton was writing a brilliant series of essays explaining the Constitution and its implications. Want to know about the United States Constitution and its meaning? Read Hamilton!! Happy Birthday America (and no I am not confusing the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Own List of Important Supreme Court Cases

With the recent release of the full collection of the Pentagon Papers, several news reporters have created lists of important court cases decided by the Supreme Court. The usual ones are on the list, including Roe v. Wade, Marbury v. Madison, and McCulloch v. Maryland.

Well, I’ve decided to create my own list of important Supreme Court cases. Afterall, I minored in Journalism in college and I took a course on Communications Law back in the late 1970s. Those credentials obviously make me an absolute expert on the Supreme Court.

My credentials are important because the three court cases I would add to the list concern libel law and newspapers. The cases are: Near v. Minnesota, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, and New York Times Co. v. United States. All three of these cases served to help define and clarify the court positions on prior restraint and absence of malice. I don’t remember a great deal about the communications course I took, but I do remember these three cases and the impact they had on the fields of journalism and newspaper publishing. These three cases helped refine the philosophy of freedom of the press and also create a balance between professional, journalistic responsibility and open and free society.

I felt the need to simply throw in my “two bits” regarding the important court cases in history. New York Times v. United States came about as a result of the Pentagon Papers. In a time as stressful as the 1970s, a free press is something important to acknowledge and appreciate. And, so my list exists.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thank You For Your Service

With the coming of the Memorial Day weekend, I want to take the time to recognize the many men and women who have died in defending the country. The soldiers and sailors in the service of the United States make tremendous sacrifices to provide security for the rest of us living here. The time spent away from home, separated from their families and loved ones; it is truly a great sacrifice these men and women give so that the rest of us can remain safe and secure in our homes.

I had promised not to use the cliché,”the ultimate sacrifice” in this essay. Yet, the phrase seems so appropriate to recognize the men and women who have died in the service of the country. To the many millions of men and women who have served in the Armed Forces, I can only say “thank you for all that you have done to make my life so rewarding.”

While I am thanking people for their service, I want to recognize the men and women, also in uniform, who serve in the communities helping to protect me and my family: the police and fire departments, the emergency response teams, the paramedics and ambulance drivers and all the employees in hospitals. So many individuals work to make their community a safer place. They need to be acknowledged as well. So many people risk their lives and their well being for my protection and security, I want to say thank you to you all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bad News For Pinball Museum

Bad news is striking everywhere these days. The National Pinball Museum in Georgetown has been evicted from its exhibit space. The Vornado Realty Trust owns the space occupied by the museum. They are evicting the pinballers in order to renovate the building.

It is truly a sad time for all of us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Last Combat Veteran of WWI Dies

Claude Stanley Choules, the last combat veteran of World War One died earlier this week. There is only one remaining veteran of the war living in the world. According to newspaper reports, Florence Green is the only known surviving veteran of the war. Ms. Green served as a waitress in the Women’s Royal Air Force.

I wanted to share a few thoughts about them and their service to country, and the world. These two, and all veterans, should be honored for their sacrifices in their military service. The fact these two are the oldest surviving members is interesting, but as Mr. Choules once said, his secret to a long life was just “keep breathing.”

He made a career out of the military, first entering during the Great War at age 14. He then served in the Navy through World War II and finally retired in 1956.

I have never met Mr. Choules. In fact, I had never heard of him until I read his death announcements. It seems, though, appropriate to recognize his service and sacrifice to insure world peace. Thank you Mr. Choules.

From a historian’s perspective, I am happy to note that he wrote his memoirs, titled The Last of the Last. A brief example from the pages of his autobiography describes witnessing the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in 1918. It may prove to be an interesting book.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring is Beginning to Arrive

The Pasqueflower is blooming so spring is not far off. Now is the time to plan those research trips and journies for new sources of family history.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wisconsin Library System is Being Threatened

Gov. Walker of Wisconsin seems to be focused on a path of "divide and conquer" as a means to dismantle all that is great about the State of Wisconsin. Now he is proposing a plan to weaken the unity of libraries throughout the state by altering budget standards.

To read more go to the website at the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper:

And thanks to Eastman's Online Genealogy for bringing this to my attention.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Grandma Always Wondered What Her Baby Saw in That Man

Recently I was attending a Family History Conference when the institution of marriage was brought up for discussion. The point was made that not all marriages were formalized or legal. In some areas of northern Europe, common law marriage was referred to as a partnership. And dissolution of the partnership could be attained simply by walking away from the relationship.

In the United States, the legal formalities of marriage were not always followed. In the Midwest, often times, ministers or judges were distant. A marriage ceremony could be as simple as a couple announcing to their family and friends, and the immediate community, that they were married. At some later date, when the minister was traveling through, the ceremony would be legalized. Children born between these dates were not considered illegitimate. It simply showed that the legal system was slow to catch up with the community.

The institution of marriage can be further complicated by the motives for marriage. Everyone likes to believe their ancestors married for love. Prince Charming came into town and swept Grandma off her feet. And, some marriages may have been the result of love. But, before the 1880s, marriage was often regarded as a contract or a business agreement. Marriages often were negotiated to advance political power, or business influence, or more money. Rarely did love come into consideration.

Known as “companionate marriage,” the institution of marriage, before the dawning 20th century, was a negotiated agreement. Dowries and legal agreements came into consideration. Love had very little to do with marriage until the late 1800s

Marriage as an institution and the relationships coming out of matrimony are important considerations for Family History. Yet, understanding the motives behind it all is equally important.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Boston Athenaeum Flooded

The damage was significant but not catastrophic, the Boston Athenaeum suffered water damage this past weekend. Thankfully none of the historic books were severely damaged. Here is the story published on

The Boston Athenaeum, the landmark membership library on Beacon Hill that is more than 200 years old, has sent thousands of books to a specialist for freeze-drying after a water leak flooded the building on Monday.

Library officials said today that the leak caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. While stunned by the incident, they were also relieved because no truly historic items had been destroyed.

"It could have been a spectacular disaster," said James Reid-Cunningham, the Athenaeum's chief conservator.

The cause of the leak still hasn't been determined, but it did happen on one of the coldest days in years so frozen pipes are a suspect.

The flooding started on the first floor of the building on Beacon Street. "It was like Niagara Falls," said librarian Paula D. Matthews.

The flooding spread from the elegant Long Room, which overlooks the Old Granary Burying Ground, and to the Newspaper Reading Room, the Bow Room, and the Children’s Library. The water was ankle-deep and seeped into stacks of books on lower floors, officials said.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1807 and is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. It will be closed for the next few days, officials said.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Microfilm Will Self Destruct in 30 Seconds

Although the headline is a bit dramatic, I couldn't help myself.

A report today in Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter stated that the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City was evacuated yesterday when flammable microfilm was discovered by an archivist. (Dick made a reference to the old television series and I decided to carry it a bit further)).

A 72 mm roll of film, inside a canister, was found to be deteriorating. It is easy to identify this stuff, because the film, as it breaks down, gives off a very distinctive ammonia type odor. The nitrate film is very combustible and capable of bursting into flames, or actually exploding.

In the case in Salt Lake, the library was evacuated. The film was removed and taken to a local landfill where it was detonated!

I think, beyond the safety concerns, what is important is the fact that film doesn't last forever. Although we, as researchers, are moving away from paper maybe we should rethink our actions. We can't count on film to keep our documents. Nor, can we count on digital records for any type of permanence. Here is another example proving that paper is the most stable and durable of products to save records.

Printing our important records and saving them in a box may still be the best action for researching and recording our family history.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Technology Advances Slave Trade Research

Here is a long, but interesting article published in that may be of interest to everyone having family history or local history ties. I printed it in full to provide easy access. The webpage can be found at:

New revelations about slaves and slave tradeBy David Eltis and David Richardson, Special to CNNJanuary 5, 2011 9:01 a.m. EST

Editor's note: David Eltis and David Richardson are co-authors of the "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade." Eltis is Robert W. Woodruff professor of history at Emory University and co-editor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade database. Richardson is the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, England.

(CNN) -- Most students of American history understand that a dramatic re-peopling of North and South America began in the years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World. But they may not realize that it was Africa, not Europe, that formed the wellspring of this repopulation process.

In the 3¼ centuries between 1492 and about 1820, four enslaved Africans left the Old World for every European. During those years, Africans comprised the largest forced oceanic migration in the history of the world. Who were they? Who organized the slaving voyages? Which parts of Africa did they come from? How did they reach the Americas? And where exactly did they go?

Strikingly, we can now provide better answers to such questions for Africans than we can for European migrants. The African slave trade reduced people to commodities, but commodities generated profits, and where there were profits there was generally good record-keeping.

Since the onset of the computer revolution in the early 1960s, early modern business and government records have allowed historians to retrieve information on 35,000 slave voyages from Africa to the Americas and make the information available on the internet. For many of these voyages, we have rich detail on the slave ship itineraries, as well as who was put on board, who survived and how they traveled.

A new "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" draws on five decades of research in archives around the north and south Atlantic to provide 189 detailed and sumptuously drawn maps that answer many questions.

These maps show that almost every port in the early modern Atlantic world organized and sent out a slave voyage, and that the bigger the port, the greater the number it sent out.

Such ubiquity suggests that before the abolitionist era, there was no moral outrage or public disgrace associated with trading in African slaves. The maps also show that almost half of all voyages were organized and set out from the Americas, not Europe. As a result, bilateral (that is out and return) itineraries were almost as common as the famous "triangular voyage" pattern based on voyages dispatched from Europe.

The new "Atlas" of the slave trade provides 189 maps tracing the voyages.Within the United States, we now know that slave voyages left from almost every port and that although Rhode Island might be well-known as a slave trading region, it was far from synonymous with the U.S. slave trade. New York and Charleston, South Carolina, were also major centers.

A profile of those on board ship as well as the conditions to which they were subjected also emerges from the pages of the Atlas. Thus, Samuel Adjai Crowther, liberated from a slave ship as a child in 1821, became the first Anglican African bishop and was largely responsible for creating the first written version of the Yoruba language. Remarkably, he married Asano, whom he had first met as a girl on the slave ship from which they were both rescued.

The Atlas also contains the story of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, who was enslaved probably in what is now western Nigeria in 1845 as a 20-year old. He was first taken to Recife in Brazil, and after a ship's captain purchased him in Rio de Janeiro, he was taken to New York where he escaped, fled to Haiti, and after returning to New York to study and then moving to Canada, he wrote his autobiography.

For most there was no escape. As another captive, Ottobah Cuguano, wrote in 1787 in his own narrative, "the misery of that of any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves is far inferior to those of the inhospitable regions of misery which they meet with in the West Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have neither regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow men."

Some of the survivors lived on into the age of photography. Photographs of Crowther as well Cudjoe and Abache Lewis, who arrived on the last slave vessel to come into the US (the Clotilde in 1860) are displayed among the maps along with stories and paintings of some of their 18th century predecessors, such as Venture Smith and Phillis Wheatley.

The Atlas also charts more general patterns among captives such as their age and sex and, for two regions, evidence of ethno linguistic origins. The maps show that both mortality and voyage length in days declined over the slave trade era, but, as with ports in Europe from which free migrants left, risk of death was persistently greater from some regions of departure than from others. Captives leaving from what is now eastern Nigeria were particularly at risk with, on average, almost one fifth of those embarked dying on the Middle Passage.

Almost half of all voyages were organized and set out from the Americas, not Europe.

But the major contribution of the Atlas is to make it clear that the slave trade was not a random process. Systematic connections between Africa and the Americas can be tracked in the same way that people have been doing for years between Europe and the Americas.

Particular ports and regions in Africa were linked via winds, currents and political circumstances with particular islands, regions and ports in the Americas. For example, Angola supplied four out of every five captives in the very large branch of the trade that went to the southern cone region of South America (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay). The United States drew a larger proportion of its slaves from Senegambia south to Liberia than any other region in the Americas. And Amazonia drew almost all of its captives from what is now Guinea-Conakry.

Where a given part of the Americas drew on a number of African regions, it tended to do so in sequence. Thus Jamaica drew heavily on what is now Ghana and Benin in the 17th century before switching to first eastern Nigeria and then northern Angola and the Congo region. Such transatlantic links bear an uncanny resemblance to the patterns established by free migrants leaving Europe for the Americas.

Finally, the Atlas shows that the Atlantic slave trade remained strong until it was suppressed. Like the institution of slavery, the traffic that supplied captives did not die a natural economic death. The maps establish that in all the major importing areas of the Americas, the volume of the traffic peaked in the years just before its suppression. This pattern held for Brazil, the United States, and the British Americas as a whole.

It is becoming commonplace to claim that there are more slaves in the world today than ever and that large-scale trafficking in people continues. The "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" suggests that such claims tend to obscure the horrors -- unique in human history -- of the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. It is indeed hard to imagine circumstances in which any parallel to the transatlantic slave trade could ever happen again.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the authors.