Join Brian and Donya as we welcome a special guest, Bernice Bennett, to kick off our Black History month broadcast series.
Ms. Bennett is a genealogist, author, producer, and host of the popular Research at the National Archives and Beyond! BlogTalkRadio show. Her guests include nationally recognized historians, genealogist, book authors, and family researchers.
Ms. Bennett is also the recipient of the first Ida B. Wells Service Award from the Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passages for her dedication to broadcast the stories about enslaved and indentured ancestors of African descent.
7 years. Crickey, but it doesn’t seem like Genealogy Adventures has been going that long. You know I’ve loved every minute of sharing my journey with you.
This year is all about ‘doing what you love’ for me. So, with that in mind, I’ve been slowly wrapping up my marketing, copywriting, and branding business in order to focus on genealogy full-time. ‘Excited’ doesn’t quite cover it. I’m also pleased that this is a family affair. I’ll be working alongside my cousin Donya Williams. She’sbeen one of my most trusted genealogy research co-pilots.
So, with that in mind, I’m pleased to share our new genealogy research service website with you:
Spoiler alert: This post will be marginally in the realms of the genealogy anorak. Or to Americans, the realm of the genealogy nerd/geek. I know, I know, there’s already the patina of geekiness associated with genealogy already. How could things possibly get more geeky? Well.. 😉
I’m hoping Ancestry.com developers will read this and take much of what I’m going to cover on board for future development of the service.
I’ve spent the past 3 weeks working my way through the All Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 records database on Ancestry.com. When you have a family tree the size of mine – nearly 30,000 people – applying the information contained in a death certificate to the correct person isn’t always straightforward or easy on Ancestry. For me, this has to do with numerous people born around the same time in the same county or state bearing the same name.
Rather than just whinge, I think I’ve come up with a pretty straightforward ‘fix’ Ancestry.com could implement.
For those of you with family trees on Ancestry.com, the image below will be familiar to you. It’s the list of all people area on Ancestry.com.
This is the landing page area of the ‘List of Individuals’ for my main family tree
This is the area of Ancestry that could definitely, absolutely and positively benefit from some additional programming.Specifically, the search functionality. For those of us with very large family trees, additional filtering options would greatly aide our efforts in finding specific individuals in large family trees – or at least filtering out a larger number of individuals.
For example, look at what happens when I try to find William Roane using the existing search function in this part of Ancestry.com:
150 William Roanes is a LOT of people to try to assess for relevance for a specific record you are trying to attach to a specific individual.
150 William Roanes! Depending on why I’m looking for a specific individual, a list like this can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to go through to (hopefully!) find the specific William Roane I’m looking for. While knowing and using middle names can cut this list down dramatically, I can still end up with quite a number of individuals to sort through while looking for a specific ancestor or relation. Using the list above, if I searched for William Henry Roane, I would still have around 15 individuals. If that doesn’t work, then it’s ‘Plan B’ time and I can do a search for all William H Roanes – which can bump the number of individuals up to 25 or so.
Yes, you can scan these results and use dates of birth and counties of birth and death as a guide – but these aren’t always helpful. Actually, the death records I’m pouring through provide this information, which is missing from a number of individuals in my tree. Lol not that this is always helpful as death record informants can provide misinformation.
And yes, one can always use a middle name or initial to further filter results. However, if middle names and/or initials aren’t known or already given, you’re limited to using just a first and last name. Again, the death records I’m looking at are providing even this fundamental bit of information.
What I’m suggesting is a far more finessed search function as shown below:
Image for illustrative purposes.
In trying to apply information gained from marriage and death records, I’d like to be able to search using a number of filter data:
Names of parents: for this. I’d probably use the father’s full name (if known) and the mother’s first name. I’m finding that a significant number of women in my tree remarried or were married before they married one of my ancestors or relations.
Name(s) of spouse(s)
Birth year (with +/- number of years option)
Place of residence (this would pull individuals based on their birth place, place(s) of residency, place of death and burial location for any individual in your tree)
Sticking with my William Henry Roane example, I have a scenario that still presents some researching issues. A staggering number of William Roanes married Elizabeths – or women with common derivations of the name Elizabeth: Bessie, Betty/Bettie, Lizzie, Liz, Liza, Eliza, Lettie/Letty, etc.
Now, if I could filter a search to look for A William Roane born around 1850 and was born in and/or lived in King and Queen County, Virginia with Jack Roane as a father and Mary as a mother and Lizzie for a spouse…I’d have a list of 5 men to look at. By the way, that took me around an hour-and-a-half to work that one out using the current search functionality. Five people is a far easier number of people to investigate than, say, 25.
Remember, this search function would only search for individuals who are already in your tree.
There is another use for this more finessed search functionality, especially in my research for African American ancestors and relations who were enslaved and separated through that system.
There are certain families my African American relations seemed to prefer marrying into than others. I’d like to search my tree to see how many Roanes in Virginia married people from the Quarles family. Filtering on this kind of criteria would better enable me to assess family relationships within the various broken Roane family lines. For those ancestors who were enslaved, it could help pinpoint slave owners.
At the moment, this kind of analysis is difficult, given the size of my tree. I know the information is locked away within the details of thousands if individuals. Being able to do a very filtered search would make such an analysis and investigation far, far simpler. And quicker.
One of the reasons why my tree is so huge is my attempt at bringing together what 300+ years of slavery tore apart. And what 300+ years of living in the margins of society as free people of colour also wrought. I am re-connecting lost and forgotten genealogies stretching back to the mid 1600s. I do so in the hopes that other African Americans can benefit from my research, find their place in the family tree that I’ve built over the years – and understand who they come from, who they are related to, and re-connect with lost and forgotten lines of the family.
Or, as I put it in another post, giving slavery and the marginalization of people of colour the finger.
So Ancestry.com developers, I hope you can take these pointers on board. And if there’s a job at Ancestry.com going…I have all kinds of UX (user experience) ideas 😉
I’ve stumbled across an interesting issue with Ancestry.com’s ‘View relationship to me’ feature. It has to do with family lines where multiple generations of people married cousins. I’m wondering if anyone else is experiencing this.
This issue arises with my Harling-Harlan-Harland ancestors. Due to religious reasons (which I’ll get into in my next post), this family has a history of generation after generation of family members marrying 2nd and 3rd cousins stretching back to the early 1600s.
This family tree is so labyrinthine, so inter-connected within its branches, that even I struggle to comprehend the degree to which some of these cousin couples (as I call them) are related to me…forget how they’re related to each other. In many cases, some of these cousin-couples are related three, four and five times over. In other words, their parents, both sets of grand-parents and most of their great-grandparents were also cousins from the different branches of this enormous family.
So if I’m struggling, I can’t really blame Ancestry for struggling.
Here’s a classic example of the problem I’m having with this Ancestry.com feature.
How Ancestry.com interprets Lewis Harlan’s relationship to me. click for larger image.
Ancestry’s answer to how Lewis and I are related is quite the mouthful. Basically, boiled down, it’s Ancestry’s way of saying we’re related through marriage. Which is true. However, Lewis is most definitely my cousin by blood. His great-grandfather, Michael Harlan, Sr., and my 9x great grandfather, George Harlan, were brothers, as you can see below.
Click for larger image
So, Lewis Harlan really is my cousin.
Now the logical question to ask is where this family relationship glitch goes wrong. Turns out that it goes wrong straight away. Ancestry.com should show Michael Harlan, Sr to be my grand uncle. That is what he is, after all. Nope, not a bit of it according to Ancestry.com. This is how the service describes my relationship to him:
Click for larger image
What’s going on, then? Maybe it has something to do with the intertwining of all of James Harlan’s (my 10x great grandfather) lines. Trying to work backwards as I add subsequent generations of their descendants, it’s as though Ancestry.com is saying: “Sorry, mate, too complicated for me. Good luck sorting this out!”
My suggestion to Ancestry, for whatever it’s worth, is that it should tweak the algorithm behind this relationship feature so that the most direct familial relationship over-rides all others. In other words, forget all of the other ways I’m connected to Michael Harlan, Sr and just go with ‘grand uncle’. In other words, ignore that he is also my cousin.
I make this suggestion for a reason. It has a knock-on effect on AncestryDNA results. I have matches with a number of James Harlan’s descendants on AncestryDNA. However, because they are not showing as actual cousins on Ancestry.com, AncestryDNA doesn’t provide any match hints. Nor does it shows how we’re actually related. So there’s no chance of connecting through AncestryDNA’s ‘Circle’ feature. This is probably due to Ancestry interpreting that we’re only connected through marriage and not through blood. Which kind of defeats the purpose of spending months of intensive research on this family – and adding generations of descendants to my family tree.
My father asked me a fairly simple question one night while I was staying with him a few weeks ago. “Why did you decide to start researching our family’s history?” There wasn’t anything to the question. There were no motives. He was just curious. A number of answers rambled around in my head. All of them were true, but none of them were entirely true. There wasn’t one sole, single, overriding reason why I decided to pick up the genealogy gauntlet.
I stumbled across what I thought was my father’s name in the midst of searching for something else using Google. The link pointed to a genealogy site called, not unsurprisingly, Ancestry.com. I was intrigued so I clicked the link. However, it wasn’t my father’s details that presented themselves. It was an 1880 Census citing his father and his father’s family. For the most part, these were names no one in my family knew. A quick search on Ancestry.com returned census records with my great-grandfather’s details. My curiosity was now truly piqued. So this was a true and honest answer to my father’s question. Indeed, it’s exactly what I told him.
Another answer could easily have been that I thrive on challenges. I love hurdles, I adore mental puzzles, thrive on mysteries and genealogy has all of these wrapped up in the best Christmas present wrapping you could imagine. As an African-American, the challenge was always going to be obvious: just how far back could I go? What would genealogy’s glass ceiling be? Four generations? Perhaps five if I was lucky? Would it all end around 1870 (the first census to list blacks by their name)? It’s worth noting that the 1860 Census only lists slaves by gender and age. The only blacks and mulattos cited by name were those who were free.
I wanted to know where my family came from. Like any family, mine has its share of lore and rumours. Some of these include: our surname was French in origin, we had Cherokee blood and there was Irish blood kicking around our veins too. What combination of my family’s lore would be true? All of it? None of it? Half? I realised that I now had the tools I’d need to begin the journey towards some answers at the very least.
I’ve come across many who share my interest in genealogy who seek a famous ancestor, or a royal connection or some eccentric distant relation who buried a treasure that no-one has ever found. That’s never been my interest. I’ve sought – and still seek – to learn something tangible about my ancestors. Who were they? What did they think? Are there family traits? How much of me is, well, actually me and how much of who I am has been hard-wired by genetics?
I’ve been researching the various branches of my family for nearly 18 months now. To say it’s been a fascinating journey is an understatement. But my journey is far from over. New facts keep coming to light, new information is shared with other people researching the same families and I make contact with people from the other long lost branches of the family all the time.
So this is a record of my adventures in genealogy. Along the way, I’ll share tips, tricks and resources you can use if you have an interest in tracing your family tree.
To get you started, here are my two main ‘first ports of call’ research tools: www.familysearch.org (an absolutely amazing free online database with marriage, death, immigration and census records) and www.ancestry.com (which has a free trial period – after which you have to subscribe to access its records). While it didn’t provide any information in my search, AfriGeneas www.afrigeneas.com has a wealth of records, documents and information for African Americans researching their family tree.