The future of genealogy

There are many excited genealogists at present, partly because of the huge RootsTech conference currently running in Salt Lake City. I could not join the 3,000 people attending RootsTech live, but I can still benefit by downloading the syllabi (handouts from the talks) and also by joining the many thousands more, listening over the internet to some sessions being broadcast live.

However this set me thinking about the changes that have already happened in genealogy during my lifetime, and wondering what will happen in the future?

Marian Pierre-Louis wrote a great blog post entitled ‘Top 3 changes in genealogy‘. According to Marian, those ‘top 3 changes’ are:

  • Increased visibility, due to eg the increasing popularity of television shows like Who do you think you are? I would add to that – the online advertising of Ancestry.com tells people how easy it is to find your ancestors and that you don’t need to be an expert. (For my views on such advertising, see my earlier post ‘You only have to look‘.)
  • Education and outreach, including courses for amateurs and professionals, some face-to-face but many now available over the internet.
  • Technology – including blogging, social media like Facebook and the digitisation of records.

When I started my family history research, access to records meant either visiting libraries, archives and genealogy societies in person, or writing letters. It was the sort of ‘hobby’ mainly undertaken by retirees with time on their hands.

Now technology brings access to digitised records and indexes, but also to opportunities to learn from others, even experts in the fields – (almost) wherever in the world you and they might be. Only a few years ago I could not have sat at my desk here in Australia and listened to a lecture being delivered in Salt Lake City.

But the changes in technology bring dangers too:

  • Not everybody is able (or willing) to embrace technology, and that will leave behind some people, as more information becomes almost only available online.
  • Just as information is made readily available online, so errors are broadcast more widely too.
  • Many seem to expect to find all information easily available online, so traditional sources that require more time to explore are being ignored (or at least until they are digitised!)
  • Because some questions are answered easily and quickly, many no longer see the need for education and learning ‘how to do research’. So they don’t learn that the first apparently matching record found might not be the right answer. The preferred solution becomes ‘whatever is quickest and easiest’ – and that could well be adopting somebody else’s family tree – warts and all.

So back to my original question – what of the future? Can the number researching their family trees continue to grow at the current rate? Is there a limit?

The average age of genealogists seems to be getting younger and perhaps that is partly because of the attractions of technology and ‘saving time’. Can the current trends continue?

More than one website has attempted to ‘stitch together’ family trees, aiming at one world-wide family tree. Mostly that has been fraught with errors – there are too many coincidentally similar people’s names, dates and places. Considered weighing of evidence and acknowledging that some conclusions are at best unreliable is needed in our own trees, and so I wonder how could any computer program reliably make that decision for us? Apparently there is already one family tree for everyone in Iceland, could that eventually be true for the rest of us?

Is DNA the answer? Certainly DNA tests can already predict the probability that we share a common ancestor with someone, but cannot tell us precisely who that common ancestor must be. More traditional methods of genealogical research are needed in conjunction with the tools provided by DNA.

So – what of the future? Technology will continue to race ahead – that is probably the only thing that is certain. It will become easier, perhaps more fun, to find more records and publish our conclusions. Will those family trees  be any more accurate than now?

What do you think? Can you make any predictions for 20 years? 50 or 100?

3 February, 2012 at 5:32 pm 5 comments

Commercial Travellers

Tomorrow is Australia Day and to mark the occasion, Twigs of Yore issued a blog challenge inspired by a line from Australia’s National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair. That third line (“We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil”) inspired Shelley to suggest that we write about the occupation of an Australian ancestor.

Many of my ancestors were salesmen, and while few of them made much ‘wealth’, there was certainly plenty of ‘toil’. My grandfather was born Cyril Leslie Etherington – but he hated the name Cyril, so everyone called him Mick. He was a salesman for much of his working life but in the 1930s and 1940s he travelled around country NSW as a commercial traveller. Carrying sample bags of confectionery, he visited shops and businesses, taking orders for the White Signet Company .

In earlier days peddlers travelled the countryside, carting goods to individuals and businesses, enduring the hardships caused by long lonely journeys, great distances and poor country roads. By the twentieth century many country travellers travelled by rail when possible. The small town of Werris Creek became an important centre for country salesmen because it was located on a railway junction. Stories and songs were written and shared amongst the country travellers, and Werris Creek, All Tickets Please is one.

My grandfather was a great story teller and I still remember songs and poems he taught me as a child, about his life as a commercial traveller. (I wonder what people thought when a 4-year-old girl broke into song with “Just an old beer bottle, washed up by the sea”!)

Away from their homes and families for so much of the time, friendships (as well as rivalries) bonded the CTs (commercial travellers).  My grandfather joined the Commercial Travellers’ Masonic Lodge and attended meetings at Werris Creek. He also joined the Commercial Travellers Association.

Country Travellers ParadeThe “country travellers” worked together for charity as well. From 1906 various “cot funds” were set up to  raise money for sick children, to fund beds in hospitals. (In 1923 the many cots that had been provided by the CT’s to Sydney’s Westmead Hospital  were placed together in one ward, called the “Commercial Travellers’ Ward”.) Around country towns the commercial travellers held fund-raising events, with floats and parades, accompanied by “chocolate wheels” and raffles.

 In the 1930s my grandfather bought a Reo Flying Cloud for some of his travels. On dirt roads, the car often bogged and had to be pushed out.

Very occasionally, as a treat for my grandmother, my grandfather took her with him on one of his trips. But mostly it was lonely for both of them. After a fire at their home in 1946, my grandmother asked him to stay at home more, so he left country travelling and returned to working in the city.

The Commercial Traveller
Who are those with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying attache cases?
Some are short, and some are tall, some have big bags, others small,
Some are dressed in style (Ye gods!) others down at heel (poor sods).

Tell us pray what is their mission, these who go with such precision -
Who are these poor hapless guys? Listen I’ll put you wise.
These (let me inform you sirs) are Commercial Travellers,
And their mission (it transpires) is pursuing men called buyers,
Who (although not blind at all) cannot see them when they call.
So they go with anxious faces, in the town and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

Pity not their lot, my brothers, their reward is not as others.
When they’ve finished this life’s mission, they don’t go down to Perdition.
That’s a fate reserved for liars, thieves, Sales Managers and Buyers,
No, their path on earth was rough, and they were punished quite enough,
As they went with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

When these poor be-knighted mortals, knock at the Celestial Portals,
Show their card and tell their story, OPEN FLY THE GATES OF GLORY!
They have paid for their transgression, so they have a grand procession,
Led by angels playing lyres, last of all ten thousand buyers,
All by forcible persuasion brought from Hell for the occasion,
March behind them several paces, CARRYING THEIR ATTACHE CASES.

(Author unknown)

25 January, 2012 at 2:42 pm 8 comments

Check multiple names and also multiple indexes

I’ve written before about indexes whose titles suggest they are accessing the same records but in fact yield different results (see ‘Multiple indexes are not all the same‘).

However, competition between subscription websites as well as freely available material means that sometimes we now have the luxury of choosing between more than one index to the same information. Especially when those indexes are separately created and not just duplicated, we have an increased chance of actually finding the record we are looking for.

I transcribed some of the 1901 London census and I am well aware how difficult it can be to read the writing. Sometimes I am almost surprised at the amount the indexers seem to have correct! Plus I hope that when researchers find an indexing error they will take the trouble to notify the webmaster (or database or index owner), so a correction can be made, and the general accuracy of the indexes will increase.

I had a reminder this week of the usefulness of multiple indexes. Dr Landsborough took a local census of the inhabitants of Stevenston in Ayrshire (Scotland) in 1819. (A version of this index can be seen on the ThreeTowners website).

We all know that Bill could be William. In Scotland Jessie was interchangeable with Jean, Jane or Janet. Morag becomes Sarah, and Donald could be Daniel.

A Scottish ancestor of mine was Grizel McKENZIE. Over the years I’ve looked for spelling variations of Grizel, but until this week I hadn’t tried looking for the English version of the name ‘Grizel’ – which is ‘Grace’. So the Grizel McKENZIE I was looking for seems to be the Grace McKENZIE who married Andrew SILLARS in Stevenston (Ayrshire) in 1833.

SILLARS is a name that seems to beg mis-spelling – SILLERS and SILAS are common, so when searching an online index I was trying SIL*S. The wildcard * (asterisk) can substitute for none, 1 or more characters. That picked up a number of spelling variations but not all.

That’s when multiple indexes came in handy. For English censuses I might check both FindMyPast.co.uk as well as Ancestry.co.uk but for Scottish censuses I was looking at Ancestry as well as ScotlandsPeople. (You can do a fair bit of searching on ScotlandsPeople before you have to pay). Ancestry only has transcriptions of the Scottish censuses, rather than the full images of the records on ScotlandsPeople, but I have a subscription for Ancestry and so did not have to pay more to search. (Ancestry.com is also generally freely available at libraries.) 

In the 1841 census on Ancestry I found my couple as ‘Andrew and Gaiyle SILLARS’ – I thought that Gaiyle might be a mis-reading of Grizle. But although knowing they were likely there somewhere, I could not find the same couple on ScotlandsPeople – I tried putting a wildcard on the *front* of the name and even that did not find them. In the end I abandoned looking for the surname at all. Fortunately their first names were uncommon so I tried looking for them by first name only, coupled with age and place – and finally I found them – as Andrew and Grizle LILLAY!

So ‘Andrew and Gaiyle SILLARS’ in one index were ‘Andrew and Grizle LILLAY’ in another. Here’s a copy of the image – what do you think?

Andrew and Grizle SILLARS

Andrew and Grizel (Grizle / Grace) SILLARS

15 July, 2011 at 5:36 pm 6 comments

Attitude to convicts (1937)

Another historic newspaper report, this time in response to the Celebration Committee’s plans for the 150-year anniversary celebrations of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney. The Committee decided that for the re-enactment of the landing, and the subsequent parade of floats, there would be no convicts!

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART.

The Celebrations Committee has …decided to ban the birthstain, so far as next year’s pageantry is concerned. No convicts will disembark at Farm Cove, nor in the subsequent procession will there be the slightest reminder that there would have been no Landing except for the need to find a new home for Britain’s surplus prison population. This impressive feat in the bowdlerisation of history has been greeted with varying degrees of derision by correspondent s of the “Herald” and others. Mr. H. J Rumsey, who has boldly called his roll-call of the First Fleet “The Pioneers of Sydney Cove,” suggests that the representation of the settlement without mention of the two thirds who involuntarily participated in it is comparable to the story of Hamlet without the Prince.

…”Conspicuous by their absence,” indeed, will be the “true patriots” who, if they left their country for their country’s good, did a vast amount of good work in the land of their enforced adoption. By discreetly leaving this family skeleton in the cupboard the committee has ensured its attendance at the feast.

…The morals of some of the convicts were in as poor case as their garments. No amount of sentimental whitewashing, by way of reaction to the excessive fastidiousness of the Celebrations Committee can disguise the fact that the convict pioneers included a number of “complete villains,” as even Phillip, who was a humane man for his times and wished to befriend his charges, was forced to admit.

…He [Phillip] pronounced the great body of them “quiet and contented,” and Hunter was able to say in 1812 that “there are many men who have been convicts, and are now settlers, who are as respectable as any people who have gone from this country.” It is a curious commentary on the present ban that convicts were permitted to join in public celebrations from the earliest times, and themselves staged a dramatic performance as early as 1789; 

…The truth is that, not merely was Australia founded on account of the convicts, but that it would have made scant progress in its first 50 years without them. We have, perhaps, more to be ashamed of in our treatment of the aborigines, some of whose pathetic remnants, will stage a corroboree at Farm Cove, than of the penal origins of our country. The brutal transportation system reflected at least as much discredit upon its authors and some of its operators as upon the majority of its victims. It belongs to the old unhappy, far-off things of another age. Yet, as Dr. John Dunmore Lang, whose words are recalled by a correspondent today, wrote in 1875, it is a great historical fact which cannot be ignored. The effort to do so is likely to provoke more ridicule than a candid recognition of circumstances, which, so far from being discreditable to Australia, emphasise the magnitude of our achievement in building up a vigorous, independent, and freedom-loving nation from such unlikely beginnings at Sydney Cove. It would be the poorest sort of snobbery to deny that many men and women who were brought to this country under degrading conditions rose superior to their misdoings and misfortunes, and played their part in laying the foundations of the Commonwealth.

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART. (1937, December 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17435749

9 June, 2011 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

Attitude to convicts (1891)

Why is it that we are now proud to claim convict ancestors? I was looking in historic newspapers for evidence of earlier views about convict heritage. I found the following remarkable piece in The Queenslander of 7 March 1891:

Whatever changes may be introduced by the advance of Social Democracy, it is doubtful whether pride of birth will ever be eliminated from human nature. There is no sign of it disappearing now at any rate. In Republican France it is just as strong as it was before the Revolution. In America, where there is no titled aristocracy, people are as proud of being descended from somebody who came over in the Mayflower as the Beauforts are of having come over, in the person of an ancestor, with William the Conqueror. In Australia folks have not yet begun to boast of the fact that their forebears came over with the Sirius, or in one of the transports that accompanied that epoch-making vessel. But I have no doubt that will come in time. Most noble origins, from the founding of Rome to the Norman conquest, start from violence and crime, and in a couple of hundred years the convict taint will be blue blood. 

 

8 June, 2011 at 8:56 am 1 comment

An Anzac story rarely told

Anzac Day, 2011 and this morning I was proud to again accompany my Dad to the Dawn Service, to remember those who served, including those who paid “the ultimate sacrifice”.

I want to speak of my Dad’s military service, someone who fortunately returned home again, but who was part of a group that has received very little acknowledgement.

My Dad was a member of BCOF, the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as soon as he was old enough, but he was just finishing training when “cessation of hostilities” was declared. When he was sent overseas, it was to Japan, as part of the occupation forces. He served 3 years in Japan, including time in and near Hiroshima, very shortly after that city was hit by a nuclear bomb. He too saw and had to do some horrific things as part of that service (only once has he really opened up and spoken about some of them).

He too has health issues as a result of that military service, but there has been very little acknowledgement for military service “after the war was over”. Only fairly recently was BCOF service even acknowledged at the War Memorial. After his return from Japan Dad joined the Citizen Forces and, when it formed, the Citizen Air Force, as “an original” (one of those who joined in 1948).

Our first thought at Anzac Day may rightly be for the Diggers and the debacle and lives lost in 1915 at what is now known as Anzac Cove. We remember also too many other battles when our young men and women served and perhaps died for their country.

But we should remember also the contribution of all those others who also “answered duty’s call” and served in other ways, the peace makers and the peace keepers.

Lest we forget.

25 April, 2011 at 10:52 pm 3 comments

Look at the history

I’ve written a new course on Australian Immigration (free settlers) for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies and have been reminded again about how much is explained by looking at background history.

People refer to the ‘push-pull’ of immigration. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s ‘pushed’ a large number of emigrants. In addition to 1 million dead, another 1 million people migrated from Ireland, causing the country’s population to fall by nearly 25%.

Likewise the pull of immigration: in the 7 years from the start of the Victorian gold rushes in 1851, the population of Victoria increased from 70,000 to nearly 500,000, overtaking the population of New South Wales. Ships arriving in Port Phillip were deserted as passengers and crew rushed off to the gold fields (often before immigration officials had time to record who had arrived).

Not all the numbers are so dramatic but looking at the numbers and considering the history helps understanding.

In 50 years from 1803, 75,000 convicts were sent to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land). With convict labour and also emancipated convicts, there was no shortage of labour and indeed the problem was to ensure no unemployment, especially for assigned convicts.

The need was for wealthy settlers to develop employment – and single women. The gender balance was so unequal that for a while the government subsidised the migration of single women. But there was little need for more labourers. By 1860 about 80% of free immigrants to Tasmania had paid their own fares. The total number of free immigrants to that date was similar to the total number of transported convicts.

It was a different story in Queensland. Because of labour shortages, Queensland was a colony founded on assisted immigration (subsidised passages). In the 40 years leading up to Federation (1901), more assisted migrants arrived in Queensland than any other colony and few records remain in Queensland of the arrival of those who paid their own way.

1 April, 2011 at 12:49 pm 4 comments

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