52 Ancestors Week 1 – Fresh Start

This week’s prompt is Fresh Start. This prompt made me think about when I had to make a fresh start researching my father’s family. I think many genealogists have had to make a fresh start with their research at some point. In my case, I learned a valuable lesson to not make assumptions, no matter how strong the circumstantial evidence!

     As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was adopted. When I started out in my research, I did not know much. I knew his birth name, first and last, which was huge! But other than that, all I had heard was that his birth mother was an unwed teenager. That’s it. When the 1940 census was released in 2012, I prepared for a long night of researching. Dad was born in 1950, so his mother would likely be on this census as I was fairly certain she was over the age of ten when he was born! 

     I settled in with coffee and Girl Scout cookies and searched page by page for families with his birth surname. Surprisingly, there were only two in Rhode Island. One was a husband and wife in their 70’s. The other was a family with 4 children. Two boys and two girls. In 1950 the boys would have been 28 and 26. The girls would have been 22 and 15. This must be my father’s family! However, my mother suggested that perhaps his mother was from another state and was only in RI to give birth and place the baby for adoption. Possible, but I didn’t think it likely. One of these 4 must be my father’s parent. Years later, one of the sons worked with my maternal grandfather and my mother went to school with his children. My mother said my father bore a strong resemblance to one of the sons that was in her class. I suspected they were either half brothers or first cousins, so naturally they would look alike.

     I really thought it must be one of the girls who was my father’s mother. Surely his birth surname must be the mother’s name since she was reportedly unmarried. The oldest gave birth to a son 4 months after my father was born, so it clearly wasn’t her. The other girl would have been 15 when my father was born, so that went along with the narrative that his mother was an unwed teenager. I did extensive research on the family and traced their roots back to Colonial America and the settling of Quebec. I began seeing DNA matches to other people who also shared these same ancestors. Distant matches, but clear matches. I still wasn’t 100% sure which one of the siblings was my grandparent, but it was pretty clear it was one of them.

     I had never suspected I had any French Canadian ancestry. I set about learning their history and culture. I dusted off my passport and took a short trip to Quebec to see the area where my ancestors came from. I visited a cemetery where some of the family was buried and paid my respects. I was talking to my mom the evening after visiting the cemetery and told her I would feel pretty foolish if these weren’t my people. My mother, who until this time had been playing devil’s advocate with every new piece of circumstantial evidence I uncovered, said, “Oh, Ellen, they must be.” 

     One day I received a message on Ancestry from a woman who had noticed I was researching the family. She asked what my connection was. I explained I was researching them trying to trace my father’s birth family. She was a cousin to the 4 siblings, but hadn’t had contact with them for years. We shared our online trees with each other and she wrote to me that when she saw the photos of my father, “she gasped and had tears” because he looked so much like her late brother. She shared the photos with other members of her family, and they all agreed my father must be their cousin. 

     I’d like to say that I did not go any further down this rabbit hole, but… I was thoroughly convinced the youngest daughter was my grandmother and decided to write her a letter. The letter was very nice and I simply told her my father’s birth name and  birth date and of my research into her family. I told her of my DNA matches to other descendants of her ancestors. I told her I was only researching to discover my roots and was not looking to forge a relationship or cause any upset. I gave her my email address and phone number in case she had any questions or wanted any other information. A couple of months later I received an email. The poor woman was probably trying to figure out how to deal with this lunatic writing to her. She said she was not my grandmother. I had no idea whether or not to believe her. After all, if she had been keeping this secret for over 6 decades, wouldn’t she be expected to deny it? 

     A few months later I petitioned the court, and received a copy of my father’s original birth certificate and his adoption records. When I opened the envelope, I fully expected to see my suspicions confirmed. I was momentarily stunned to see a name I had never heard of written on the sheet of paper. His mother was married? And 22? Where was the unwed teenager I had been told about? No wonder I didn’t find her on the 1940 census; Her surname in 1950 was her husband’s as she had been married in 1945. Her husband was not from Rhode Island – she met him while he was serving in the Navy. I discovered my father’s true birth mother also had French Canadian ancestry. I also learned that nearly all people with French Canadian ancestry are interconnected, so it wasn’t surprising that I would share ancestors with the other family I was so convinced I was related to.

     Armed with the information about the correct birth mother, I started a new family tree. It pained me to delete the tree with the wrong family. I had spent nearly two years researching them. I didn’t really mind having to make a fresh start. I love the research, and was quite happy to have another branch of my family to uncover. Making the fresh start led me to some lovely aunts and cousins that I never would have found otherwise!

 

 

GEDmatch update

This morning, the internet is abuzz with the latest in the GEDmatch saga.

I am glad that Curtis Rogers and John Olson seem to have taken to heart the concerns of the genetic genealogy community and the users of their website. Their decision to violate their terms of service may have been an isolated incident of poor judgement, and they seem to be taking appropriate action now. However, I am not confident that they will not be persuaded to make that same decision at some point in the future. Unfortunately, they have lost my trust and I am no longer comfortable providing them access to my DNA data.

Another 2¢ about GEDmatch

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding DNA testing lately. Some people have been upset by the police using DNA data to solve cold cases. This data that had been uploaded by individuals interested in genetic genealogy for their own personal research. The site law enforcement has primarily been using is GEDmatch.

GEDmatch is an open data website where people can upload their DNA raw data to compare with other users. They accept uploads from several companies, so it’s a great way to compare DNA with people who have tested with companies other than the one(s) you’ve tested with. You choose a user name and can provide an email address if you want people to be able to contact you. There are many free tools on the free website. It’s a wonderful way to not only find family, but to figure out exactly how you are related as they have a chromosome browser – something that some of the other sites do not offer.

Several cold cases have been solved using the DNA uploaded by unsuspecting family members of criminals. When it was announced in April of 2018 that the police had solved the Golden State Killer case with data found on GEDmatch, people reacted. Many were afraid that they and their families could be subjects of a witch hunt if their DNA remotely matched DNA from a crime scene. GEDmatch listened to their user’s concerns and updated their terms of service to say that they would assist law enforcement by giving access to user’s DNA data only in extreme cases such as murder or violent rape.

This week, they violated their own terms of service by allowing law enforcement to access their user’s DNA data for a case that does not meet the criteria established in their terms of service. Parabon NanoLabs initially refused to assist the police, but relented after GEDmatch contacted them requesting them to grant permission. In Tuesday’s occurrence, the detective assigned to the case contacted GEDmatch directly and explained the details of the brutal beating of a 71 year old woman. The brutality of the crime was such that it resulted in GEDmatch relenting and allowing Parabon to provide DNA info to the police.

I think it’s great that so many criminals are being brought to justice and I have no problem with law enforcement being assisted by the gentlemen behind GEDmatch. I agreed to the new terms of service. I discussed the new terms of service with the individuals that I administer tests for. I gave them the option to have their DNA profiles removed from the site. I was okay with the police potentially having access to my DNA information to solve rapes and murders – and I willingly consented when I agreed to the new terms of service. Had they updated their terms of service and requested permission to use my DNA for murder, violent rape, and also savage beatings, perhaps I would have agreed. I am not okay with having a third party decide for me that using my DNA for any other circumstances other than what I agreed to is acceptable. I’ve never agreed with the idea that it’s better to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission.

A new friend who is an adoptee recently told me she has considered DNA testing, but is concerned about insurance companies accessing her data in order to deny or limit coverage. With each company I’ve tested with, the terms of service state that they will not share my information with insurance companies. They also state that they will not share my data with law enforcement unless presented with a subpoena or a warrant.

As of today, I have removed all DNA profiles that I had previously uploaded to GEDmatch. As useful as the site has been, I cannot continue to give someone access to my DNA only for them to do what they like with it despite what I have agreed to. I’ve been a big proponent of DNA testing since I first spit in a vial 7 years ago. I still maintain it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. As a result, I’ve gained a wonderful sister and my amazing nieces and nephew. Not to mention the great cousins I’ve collected along the way. I will continue to recommend testing for anyone looking for family or just curious about ethnicity. As always, choose the testing company wisely. Be sure to read the terms of service so you know how your DNA data will be used. Of course it’s possible they could violate their terms of service like Gedmatch did. If that happens, I’ll delete my data from those companies as well. For now, the benefits outweigh the risks.

See ya later, Manchester

Given the first two sessions I was starting my morning with, I decided to go for a walk and enjoy the beautiful weather before being cooped up indoors discussing death for a couple of hours.

Manchester is such a wonderful city! Once again I enjoyed roaming the streets. Everything is clean and there are large planters dotted throughout the sidewalks with signs on them  proclaiming Manchester to be a city of walkable neighborhoods.

A woman in the second session was lamenting the fact that she did not purchase a ticket to today’s luncheon, and ended up purchasing mine. As much as I wanted to hear the presentation, the sunshine lured me outside. I gave the Irish pub another try and found them open. Delicious food and Irish music – it was almost as good as being in Ireland.

I’m planning a research trip to PEI next year, so I just had to attend Prince Edward Island Repositories and Records. Melanie McComb sure knows her subject! I’m going home with some great new information and resources to check out.

The final event of the day was the banquet and presentation by D. Joshua Taylor – Family: Links to the Past and Bridges to the Future. If you’ve never heard Josh speak, try to attend one of his lectures if you have the opportunity. He always has interesting family history stories, mostly culled from his own family tree.

I had an amazing weekend and left with new ideas and resolutions for my research. I resolve to:

  • Make a clear research plan
  • Start using timelines
  • Be more mindful of the usefulness of indirect and inferential evidence
  • Be more organized with my research notes

I’m certain I made some of these same resolutions at NERGC 2017. Hopefully I’ll be more successful this time. Regardless, I know I’ll be spending every waking moment during the next few weeks researching!

NERGC Day 2

My second day at NERGC began with a nice breakfast at the hotel followed by a short walk down Elm Street. A VERY short walk! The morning temp was 31F and quite windy. I left my winter coat in my car, and it seemed like too much bother to search the parking garage for my car to get it. The entire walk, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head chastising me for leaving it in the car. I glimpsed some murals down an alleyway, and detoured to check them out. I’m so glad I did!

Once back to the warmth of the hotel, I took a walk through the registration area. As I predicted, there were a bunch more queries added to the board. So many in fact, that they needed to add another board!

The message board only had a few more pinned messages, but I’m guessing that is due to the conference app. I read in one of the updates that more than half of the attendees have downloaded the app.

I did not attend today’s luncheon, so I ventured out into the city. It is amazing how many ethnic restaurants there are in a short radius. Venezuelan, Greek, Mexican, Italian, Indian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Spanish, etc. You definitely won’t go hungry in Manchester! I had intended to have lunch at the Irish pub, but they were having kitchen issues and would be opening late. As my next session would be at 1:45, I ate elsewhere. I chose a Hungarian restaurant, Lala’s Hungarian Pastry. I had a delicious chicken goulash. There was also a huge selection of Hungarian pastries and cookies. I may or may not have bought a small package of assorted cookies to snack on later…

After waddling back from lunch, I headed to the exhibit hall. A lot of people were still at the luncheon or in workshops, so it wasn’t very crowded. There are so many vendors and societies represented. From small, local societies to the big companies like American Ancestors and Ancestry, there is a lot to take in. There are vendors selling just about anything you can think of that is genealogy related. Books, maps, jewelry, family charts, magnets, keychains – everything!

The Gravestone Girls create beautiful artwork from the images found on old New England gravestones.

https://www.gravestonegirls.com

Tim Firkowski really got into the spirit!

https://www.thegenealogyassistant.com

Our Fun Tree had lots of beautiful genealogy related jewelry.

https://www.ourfuntree.com

Kelly and Wendy, along with the other volunteers from the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, made sure to let folks know about the benefits of their society.

https://www.msoginc.org

The day ended with a banquet after which Blaine Bettinger presented The Helen Marley Story. It was a fascinating case study where Blaine identifies his great grandmother’s biological mother utilizing indirect evidence and targeted DNA testing. Genealogists may be the only group of people who can be held spellbound for an hour while someone talks about their research process. Again I had a tableful of interesting dining companions. Between my new friends and Blaine’s great presentation, I was sad when the night ended. C’est la vie. Tomorrow is a new day with new adventures.

NERGC 2019 is underway!

I arrived at the Doubletree in Manchester, NH shortly after 8am having left Little Rhody around 6am. I left my car with the valet, my bag with the front desk, and set out to explore every inch of the conference center. Join me to check it out.

First stop was to check in and get my ‘swag bag’. The bag contained my name tag and meal tickets as well as brochures from different vendors and the daily conference sheets.

The entrance to the conference has tables full of helpful volunteers who can answer just about any questions you can think of. There is also the query board where you can post queries with the hopes of finding someone who can help break down some of your brick walls. Even if you don’t have a query to post, stop by and read through them. Perhaps you’re the one who may have information vital to someone’s research. There is also a message board. So far the messages are from people who are looking for meal tickets or for a place in a sold out workshop.

Don’t be fooled by the pics; there are over 1,000 conference attendees. By Saturday morning, the bits of paper on the query and message boards will be overlapping and fighting for space.

I’ve already met some wonderful people. First timers have an orange dot on their name tags, so I’m trying to be sure to be extra welcoming and to share my conference knowledge. I remember my first conference, a woman gave me a tip. She told me to put my meal tickets and room key behind my name tag in my lanyard so I’d always have them handy and know where they are. I passed that tip on to a newcomer this morning. I hope she finds it as useful as I have.

The opening session with Cyndi Ingle was fantastic. It was titled Genealogy and the Internet – A Match Made in Heaven. For the last 23 years, Cyndi’s List has been the place to go when you’re wondering, “where can I find that? She has compiled an index to over 336,000 online genealogy resources. It is such a valuable research tool.

Next on the agenda was the luncheon with Jennifer Zinck sponsored by the Massachusetts Genealogical Council. The topic was DNA Testing: What Did I Sign Up For? A great presentation that is certainly of interest given how much DNA has been in the news recently. Prior to Jennifer’s presentation, the first annual Shirley M Barnes Records Access Award was presented to Brooke Schreier Ganz of Reclaim the Records. Brooke was unable to attend the conference, but sent in a video thanking MGC for the award. My table companions were delightful and it was nice to finally get the chance to meet my interviewee Carol McCoy in person!

The three lectures I attended today were fun and educational. My favorite was Women’s Suffrage: Their Rights, Roles, and Limitations presented by Michael Strauss. It was a fascinating look at women’s rights throughout history. At one point when discussing historical ages of consent, at what ages girls could become engaged, etc, my mouth dropped open in shock.

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NERGC is off to a great start! I’m looking forward to more great lectures tomorrow as well as a visit to the exhibit hall.

There’s an app for that…

It’s hard to believe that NERGC is less than a week away! This year there is a conference app. It’s AttendeeHub and all attendees received an email yesterday with a link to download the app to an iOS or Android device. There is also a mobile web version for those without an iOS or Android device. I love a good app, so I was excited to download it to my phone.  Here’s a look at the main screen.

 

The activity feed is a place for people to post things like they would on other forms of social media. Schedule shows the full conference schedule (excluding workshops and meals). Each lecture you have chosen will have a check mark next to it. Have you changed your mind since choosing your lectures when you registered? I change mine at least 2 or 3 times during every conference… You can uncheck the circle and choose another option.

 

 

Speakers has a list of all the scheduled speakers and you can click on each for a brief bio and a listing of their scheduled presentations. Sponsors is a place you can learn more about each sponsor of the conference. If you tap the name of the sponsor, the app will take you to a map of the exhibit hall and you can see their exact location so you can go visit them and have a chat with their representatives.

 

As you may have guessed, Exhibitors takes you to lists of the exhibitors. Like the Sponsors option, tapping each exhibitor’s name will take you to the map and show you their location in the exhibit hall.

 

One of my favorite features of the app is Maps. There are maps of the exhibit hall, the hotel, and also a map of the city of Manchester! I’m expecting this feature to be invaluable. In years past, I’ve wandered around lost, looking for the location of a particular presentation. Having a schedule that lists a presentation as being held in Ballroom B isn’t particularly helpful if you’ve never been to the venue and have no idea of what rooms are located where. With the hotel map, if I’m scheduled to be in the Piscataquag Room, I can easily locate it! The city map will come in handy for when we venture out into Manchester. Although most people have map apps on their phones, it’ll be handy to have it right in the conference app.

Another favorite feature is Attendees. This is a searchable, alphabetical list of all attendees. You can search using either first or last name. Once you locate the person you are looking for, you can message them, send them a meeting invite, make a note, or add them as a contact so you can share your contact details with each other. Not everyone has activated their profile, so the app warns that if a person is not active that messages may be delayed. I think this feature will be quite useful for contacting other attendees during the conference. You can choose how much information to share with others and can even add a profile picture if you want.

The rest of the features are pretty self explanatory. I’m already super excited about this year’s conference, and I can tell that this app is really going to enhance the experience.

So, if you’re attending, download the app! If you haven’t registered for the conference, there is still time. I’m registered for most of the luncheons and banquets, but as there’s no banquet Thursday night, I’ve decided to try one of the area restaurants and get a taste of the host city. Using the conference app, I sent a message to one of my genie friends and invited her to come along. If you’ve got any recommendations for us or want to join us, use the app and send me a message! See you in Manchester! 🙂

Interview with George Findlen

In less than 2 months, the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium (NERGC) conference will begin! If you have never been, I urge you to try to attend. The conference is biennial and the location rotates between the six New England states. My first experience with this conference was in 2015 when it was held in my home state of Rhode Island. NERGC 2017 was in Springfield, MA and it has been a long two years waiting for NERGC 2019 in Manchester, NH! There are so many lecture topics to choose from. Not to mention the luncheons and banquets with marvelous speakers… This year, I was given the opportunity to interview two of the conference presenters. Today’s post contains my interview with George Findlen.

 

How long have you been interested in genealogy? What sparked your interest?

I have been interested in genealogy since about 1999 when I retired. I wanted to understand why my father’s family (educated, socially and politically involved farmers) was so different from my mother’s family (uneducated, not socially or politically active farmers). By answering that question, I hoped to better understand what led me to become what I am, a researcher and teacher.

In your personal research, what is the most surprising thing you have discovered? The biggest brick wall you have overcome?

The most surprising event in my research has to do with a murder-suicide. The brother of an ancestor killed his wife and then shot himself. The fun, from a research point of view, came from looking at the values of the community and the teaching of the church. (It appears that the local Catholic priest refused to marry a couple who were cousins. So the couple got married before a justice of the peace in a neighboring township. Maine did not prohibit cousins from marrying. The couple and the woman who seems to be the local midwife [and her husband, my ancestor’s brother] may have been ostracized by members of the community. When a neighbor came to the house of the midwife, her husband forbade her going. She got her bag and left. Her husband followed, picked up an axe, and killed his wife with a blow to the head. He shot himself later that morning. I view the story as an insight into the power of the Catholic church and of local values in that community in that year.)

I do not think of myself as facing brick walls. Instead, I see myself as trying to make the best sense with limited documents. To that end, I have turned to local histories and social histories to help me fill out my ancestors’ lives.

As an attendee of several of your lectures, I can attest as to how beneficial and enjoyable they are. After each, I’ve come away with new knowledge and great ideas to apply to my own research. What do you enjoy most about lecturing and what do you hope your audience gets out of the experience?

I am a teacher at my core. I like to help people get what they want. My hobby horse goal as a teacher and genealogist is to beg Acadian and French-Canadian to go beyond family trees (names, places, and dates) and to look for documents that will tell them how their ancestors lived. Helping people make that shift is what most satisfies me.

You specialize in French Canadian and Acadian research. What prompted you to choose this focus? What are the biggest challenges?

I have just completed volume 1 of a family history of my lineage (4 generations from 1650 through 1800–the book is being laid out as I write this), and that has required that I do research in Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine. I will specialize in the blended Acadian / French-Canadian families of the Upper Saint John Valley since that is where my ancestors settled in 1785 and after. So my focus is on my mother’s lineage.

My largest challenge is that I live in Wisconsin, and the records I want to work with are in New Brunswick and Maine. I will be dependent on others for looking up records and on cousins who will put me up in a guest bedroom when I can to Aroostook County to do research on both sides of the border.

What does this year’s conference theme mean to you? What would you say to convince a first-timer to attend?

This year’s theme, “Families — link to the past, bridge to the future” is an excellent one-liner for what I am trying to do. I don’t think we can understand ourselves if we do not look at our past. Likewise, I don’t think we can formulate our hopes for the future if we do not look at the past. To the first-timer, I say, “Want to find your ancestors? Come to the NERGC. We’ll help you find them.”

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More details (and registration information!) can be found here. Register by February 28th to take advantage of the Early Bird discount. Hope to see you in Manchester!

 

George Findlen is a retired academic administrator who has served as a faculty member or administrator at nine colleges and universities in seven states over thirty years. In retirement, he has re-invented himself as a genealogist, becoming certified in 2005 and recertified in 2009 and 2014. In 2014, he became a certified genealogical lecturer. He researches Acadian and French-Canadian families in Eastern Québec, the Canadian Maritimes, and New England. In addition to researching his family, he writes articles for publication. His articles have appeared in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and genealogical society journals in New England, Louisiana, New Brunswick, and Québec. A recent effort describes the results of a DNA study which documents that the two Acadian Martin immigrants are not related. The article he is proudest of is “The 1917 Code of Canon Law: A Resource for Understanding Catholic Church Registers,” published in the June 2005 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. The article is the first ever in any language to explain how Roman Catholic canon law can explain unique parish register entries. He is currently writing a history of his Acadian lineage, a venture covering eight generations and 300 years of history. He likes to give talks to genealogists, and has addressed groups in four Upper Midwest states and has presented at regional and national conferences. He volunteers at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library where he helps visiting groups of genealogists, and he currently serves on the board of the National Genealogical Society where he chairs the Education Committee and serves on the editorial board of the NGSQ.

In Remembrance

One hundred years ago at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War officially ended. My great grandfather, Philias Gouin, served in the US Army during WWI and was a member of the 103rd Field Artillery, Battery B.

The 103rd was primarily made up of Rhode Islanders. The unit had been formed in 1801 as the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery (PMCA). In the beginning, they mostly protected local shipping concerns during the Barbary Wars. They were also called into action during Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War.

When Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would be entering the war against the Imperial German Government on 06 April 1917, the 103rd was ready. At this time they were comprised of only Battery A and they began to recruit in earnest. On 04 May 1917 (Rhode Island’s Independence Day), they led a parade through the streets of Providence. They practiced public drills at the Cranston Street Armory, hoping to inspire young men to enlist. On 08 May 1917, they held a rally at the Benefit Street Arsenal featuring a rousing speech by a hero of the Spanish American War. So many men were convinced to enlist, that they split into 3 batteries, A, B, and C.

WWI soldiers at the Cranston Street Armory

 

Philias may have been one of the young men at the rally on May 8th, because he enlisted the following day. On 25 July 1917, the unit reported for duty and were told they would be going to Quonset Point for training. They trained at Quonset through the end of August, and then moved to Boxford, Massachusetts for additional training.

On 09 Oct 1917, the 103rd, including Philias, departed for Brest, France from Hoboken, New Jersey. They participated in the Second Battle of the Marne, the Third Battle of the Aisne, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, amongst others.

 

Battery B of the 103rd Field Artillery at the Second Battle of the Marne

 

After the Armistice Treaty was signed, the men remained in France until March of 1919. On 31 March 1919, Philias boarded the USS Mongolia and headed home. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on 10 April 1919 and was discharged from service on 29 April 1919.

Last weekend I attended the annual meeting of a genealogical society I’m a member of. One of the speakers was an expert on military history and research. He asked his audience to raise their hands if they had a grandfather or great grandfather who had served in WWI. I was incredibly proud to have my hand in the air.

 

So, on this centenary of the end of the Great War, I’m remembering those who served during that War, and am also so thankful for all of our Veterans who serve to protect our freedoms.