Family history stories: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Most family history researchers have anecdotes about genealogy itself – their own stories, not their ancestors.’ Even the mainstream media ventures into genealogical territory. Here are some of the most memorable I have run across (or experienced) lately.

The good-and-funny: I know you, and you’re dead

I’ve posted this before, from my friend and distant cousin Roberta Estes. It is surely one of a kind. In her own words:

“My favorite [story] is that I’m dead. I wrote to the person assuring them I’m not, and they accused me of being a crook, to put it nicely. (They were anything but nice.) They told me they knew me and I’m dead. It was the most bizarre discussion I’ve ever had. I told them I’ve never heard of them and they said “of course not, you’re dead.”

I finally had to contact the company and ask them to remove my death information from that person’s tree because the fact that I was “dead” allowed my private information to be shown to others. I did this multiple times. They kept killing me off again. Seriously.”

Asked whether the whole thing was a joke, Roberta responded:

“Nope, they were dead serious, pardon the pun. They were angry with ME for wanting them to remove my death date in their tree. I suggested that perhaps it was another Roberta Estes and they very condescendingly said, ‘No, that’s not possible, I know you and you’re dead.’”

I was compelled to ask Roberta if she was already dead when she and I met about twenty years ago in Halifax, Virginia for family history research. I would love to be able to say that I met an actual ghost in the flesh, so to speak.

The bad: no good deed goes unpunished

This story from the Washington Post might make your head spin. Some three decades ago, a medical student in Oregon – now a Dr. Cleary — responded to a request for sperm donors. The lab reportedly assured him that his donations would be used only on the east coast, five times at most. Both promises turned out to be false.

Fast forward to the present. Dr. Cleary’s wife gave him an autosomal test kit last Christmas. Results have identified (as of the time the WAPO article was published) nineteen offspring conceived with Dr. Cleary’s donated sperm. There may be more in the offing. Many are located in the northwest, where he still lives.

He sounds like a genuinely nice guy who believed he was doing a helpful thing by donating. Some married couples and single women have no alternative for the woman to conceive except via artificial insemination.

Dr. Cleary responded warmly to the first few offspring who contacted him. Now apparently a bit overwhelmed, he has called time out on communications. Imagine the implications. He has children in the same area where offspring are turning up. What about the possibility a “new” offspring might be dating one of his previously known children, a half-sibling? What do you do about that? Demand a DNA test before any first date? Can you grasp suddenly learning that you have at least nineteen other children? Or at least eighteen half-siblings? I lack the imagination.

Finally, the truly ugly

I’m going to use phony names and locations, for reasons which will become obvious.

A couple of months ago, I received this email, verbatim, in toto:

 “Whatever prompted you to demote my grandfather from Captain to Sergeant?”

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about. I should have ignored it, because the underlying anger is obvious. Unfortunately, I was curious, and the sender’s surname was one of my lines. Let’s call him Mr. Watkins. I was hopeful that I might have found another recruit for Watkins YDNA testing: I am always on the lookout for living male Burkes, Rankins, Lindseys, Winns, et al. who might be willing to test. Consequently, I responded.

Turned out that I had been researching a Watkins family who migrated from Virginia to the Ohio Territory. I ran across a Find-a-Grave listing for a Civil War soldier named Thomas Watkins. Find-a-Grave had him listed as a Captain, but I had seen evidence that he was a Sergeant. I provided the evidence to Find-a-Grave without requesting any change. Find-a-Grave changed his rank to Sergeant. This infuriated my correspondent.

I offered to ask Find-a-Grave to revise the entry if I were wrong (a waste of good will). However, a graves registration form filled out by the soldier’s son gave his rank as Sergeant. Also, a listing of his company roster identified Thomas Watkins as a sergeant in Captain Chamberlain’s company of Union soldiers.

I duly reported the evidence to Mr. Watkins and suggested he provide his contrary evidence to Find-a-Grave. He declined to do so. He clearly didn’t care about results – he just wanted to harass. His proof was a family heirloom Civil War pistol engraved “Captain” on the handle. His emails expressed his outrage that (1) I did not immediately recall providing the info to Find-a-Grave, (2) it took me some time to relocate the evidence, and (3) I was “messing with” someone else’s “family tree,” which he found reprehensible. Oh, and he has “no intention” of DNA testing.

The exchange ended with this email from him:

“In the impending civil war, I will keep you tight on my rank and my confirmed kills.”

One of my friends deems that a death threat. I do not. Her concern nevertheless inspired me to research Mr. Watkins and his family, to determine whether he was sufficiently nearby to add me to his list of confirmed kills even before his (probably longed-for) civil war commences.

Sergeant Watkins was his great-great grandfather rather than his grandfather. After the Civil War, the Sergeant lived in a medium-sized community in a midwestern state. His son and grandson were attorneys in the same county. His great-grandson was an attorney and a judge there.

My correspondent, a son of the judge, left for a small town (population less than 300) in a western state that is a hotbed of militia activity. The town apparently consists mostly of house trailers, dilapidated late model pickups, propane tanks, one bar, one liquor store, and a church. He commented multiple times in a local online discussion string, making anti-semitic comments, using the “C” word, referring to “faggot liberals,” and inviting people to fight. Another person on the string implied that he might be a meth addict.

In response to his email saying that he would keep me informed about his rank and confirmed kills, my initial impulse was to reply as follows, tongue planted firmly in cheek:

“In the impending civil war, you need to watch your six — because there is a descendant of Captain Chamberlain out there looking for a descendant of the sonuvabitch who stole his service pistol.”

My better angels vetoed the idea.

On that note, I’m outtahere. See you on down the road.

Robin

 

Ancestry.com: a new beef

If you have come anywhere close to this blog before, you have heard me grouse about online family trees at Ancestry, Family History Search, and other websites. I have preached ad nauseam that “information” on such sites does not prove anything.[1] It is not even evidence, much less  proof.  Actual family history evidence — which leads to proof — comes from original sources such as county probate records, deeds, tax lists, state birth and death records, and so forth. Online trees are, at best, clues. For the most part, they aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. 

I obviously haven’t whined and moaned enough. It’s time to kick it up a notch.

A friend with considerable DNA expertise advised Gary and me to take the autosomal DNA test at Ancestry, although we had already tested at FTDNA. He said Ancestry has a larger database and that (at the time) their autosomal results featured something useful called “circles” of people to whom you are genetically related. The “circles” are now gone. What is left is something called “thru lines.”

I haven’t looked at “thru lines.” What I found out right off the bat (according to Ancestry) is that one’s autosomal results aren’t worth a spit unless you have a family tree at Ancestry.

Accordingly, I began to create one. Ancestry purportedly makes it easy by providing “hints.” For example, when I entered the name of a grandparent, a census record in which the grandparent appeared popped up. For the first few generations of a new tree, Ancestry’s suggestions are probably mostly accurate and harmless. There is good information in plenty of readily accessible information in twentieth-century census, marriage, birth and death records. More importantly, most of us know from personal experience the names of our parents, grandparents, and perhaps some great-grandparents. When that is the case, Ancestry’s suggestions, even if erroneous, don’t really matter. No harm, no foul for, say, the twentieth century.

The wicket gets a bit sticky as you make your way into the 19th century. It gets worse the further back in time you go. Let’s assume you have already done a good job researching your family history via conventional paper research in county and other primary records. You will be well-equipped to know whether Ancestry is providing accurate information when it suggests the names of an ancestor’s parents … or whether it is just providing names obtained from other family trees.

I eventually gave up on my autosomal results because of the arrant nonsense Ancestry was suggesting as possible parents for my relatives. Here are examples:

  • Ancestry suggested that the mother of my ancestor “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn Estes (wife of Lyddal Bacon Estes of Tishomingo Co., MS) was Lettice “Letty” Stone. This misinformation gets the “SAY, WHAT?” award. Other than the fact that Letty may also have been from Lunenburg and may have married a Winn — Lunenburg was awash in Winns and Stones in the nineteenth century — that is pure fiction, not fact. There are a million Lunenburg County records proving that “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn’s parents were Benjamin Winn and that his wife’s name was Lucretia (Andrews). Please forgive my hyperbole.
  • Ancestry suggested that Nancy Winn Estes’s husband Lyddal Bacon Estes (“LBE”) married Sally Alston Hunter. We need an emoji here for a big Bronx cheer. Sally Hunter did marry a Dr. Lyddal Bacon Estes (“Dr. LBE”). Dr. LBE and LBE were different men. This is a classic case of I wrote about “same name confusion.”  The Lunenburg couple — LBE and Nancy Winn — married there in March 1814. Dr. LBE died November 1814 in Maury Co., TN, and his widow was named “Sally” in at least two county records. LBE continued to appear in Lunenburg tax lists after Dr. LBE died. A comment by Shirley McLane’s character Ouizer Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias comes to mind: “these are not difficult questions!”
  • Chesley Estes, son of Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes of Lunenburg, was not the father of the LBE who married Nancy Winn. Chesley died in Maury Co., TN, having never married and having lived with his parents most of his life. This one at least gets a “close, but no cigar” award: Chesley’s sister Mary Estes was LBE’s mother. Her identity is, I confess, a more difficult question, although Chesley’s lack of children  is not.
  • Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes were the parents of Dr. LBE who married Sally Alston Hunter and died in Maury Co., TN in 1814. They were not the parents of LBE who married Nancy Winn in Lunenburg in 1814 and eventually settled in Tishomingo Co., MS. LBE died there between December 1844 and March 1845, and Nancy was his administratrix.  Here is an article  about LBE and Nancy Winn Estes’s family.
  • When Ancestry tells you it may have identified a parent for one of your ancestors, you can click on a link for the source of the information. You get only one guess for the source 99% of the time … And the winner is: someone else’s family tree. I made the mistake of messaging one of the tree owners about an error, but I should have known better. Correcting someone else’s family tree is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time, and it just irritates the pig. 

Here is a link to Roberta Estes’s post about “thru lines.” She explains it better than I could.  

And here is the bottom line. It has always been obvious that many, if not most, family trees on Ancestry and other genealogy sites are constructed by copying other people’s family trees. This is a fast way to spread both bad and good information. Ancestry has now exacerbated and accelerated that process by helping people rapidly construct family trees with information obtained almost primarily? exclusively? from other peoples’ family trees. Ancestry, bless its heart, is killing credible family history research. That may not be a good long-term business model.

Gary, who likes to predict comments I will receive on my posts, says I’m going to get one saying, “No, Ancestry is just killing antiquated effete intellectual ‘researchers’ who think solving genealogical puzzles by digging through actual records is ‘fun.’”

One final note. If you aren’t familiar with Southern idiom, “bless her/his/its heart” means “what a total idiot.”

See you on down the road.

Robin


[1]Some online trees do provide sources such as census and probate records. Such information is obviously worthwhile provided it is associated with the right person. There are many probate records attached to Mr. X on Ancestry, when the will in question was actually written by Mr. Y, who lived a generation later and lived 6 counties west. Both Mr. X and Mr. Y were named John Smith, but that doesn’t mean they were the same man.

So … Is He My Second Cousin or My First Cousin Once Removed???

I’ve been talking to a friend who is a fifth cousin once removed. “How on earth,” she said, “do you determine our relationship?” I mumbled something incoherent about “rules” concerning consanguinity before concluding it was impossible to explain without visual aids.

Most of you undoubtedly figured out long ago how to tell a fourth cousin from a fifth cousin, and what “once removed” and “twice removed” mean. It took me a while to get to an “AHA!” moment on those issues. If this stuff is old hat for you, please head for this website’s archives and find an article about genealogical proof, or legal concepts in family history research, or the Scots-Irish.  If you have had any trouble calculating relationships, please read on.  There WILL be visual aids.

OK, we all know how to identify a first cousin, right? He, or she, is a child of one of your parent’s siblings, and you share a set of grandparents. The chart below shows a pair of Rankin first cousins, Tom and Robert (the green rectangles), grandsons of John Rankin and Emma Brodnax. Please note: John and Emma, my grandparents, are the only real people on the charts in this article. All others are fictional.

Please notice that there is one generation in between the first cousins, Tom and Robert, and their common ancestors, John and Emma.

OK, moving on, let’s add a generation: Chris and Alex, sons of Tom and Robert, respectively – the green rectangles in the chart below. Chris and Alex are second cousins. Note that there are two generations between the second cousins and their common ancestors, John and Emma.

This demonstrates the general rule: the number of generations between the youngest members of the line and their common ancestors defines the relationship. Like so …

  • One generation between the youngest & the common ancestors = first cousins
  • Two generations between the youngest & the common ancestors = second cousins

And so on.

“Removed” simply means that one of the cousins has more generations between himself and the common ancestor than does the other. In the chart below, Tom and Alex are first cousins once removed, since Alex is one more generation “removed” from their common ancestors John and Emma.

Simple, oui? Hahahaha … I still have to sketch a little chart in order to figure out distant relationships. Alternatively, I could just enter the family into my family tree software and let it calculate the relationships. But what fun would that be?

See you on down the road. I’ve got a load of Rankins on my mind …