Posts tagged ‘Ancestry.com’

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

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

British Army Service Records

I was searching today through the “Chelsea Pensioners” records on the website FindMyPast.co.uk These are the records of men pensioned out of the British Army, and the records will cover 1760-1913. (Corresponding to The National Archives documents in WO97).

Those of us familiar with searching Australian WW1 service records have been spoilt by free and easy access to digitised records, not only information about where and when our military ancestors served, but including physical description, next-of-kin, previous occupations, date and place of birth and more. Such digitised Australian records can be found by searching the National Archives of Australia website.

Gradually now more digitised British service records are becoming available for those of us unable to visit the reading rooms in London. Amongst these, the subscription site FindMyPast (UK) has a number of military collections including the Royal Marine Medal Roll 1914-1920, Military Births, Marriages and Deaths – and now these British Army “Chelsea Pensioner Records”. The subscription site Ancestry.co.uk has WW1 service records and pension records. The National Archives (UK) website itself has an online database of Trafalgar Ancestors as well as Campaign Medals issued to WW1 merchant seamen on DocumentsOnline.

Many more military service records are available that are not yet online, but the above are some of the sources I’ve found useful. If we take the trouble to look, such digitised records make it much easier to find information about our military ancestors, even for those of us who live a long way from London.

1814 Service Record, "52nd Regiment, Light Infantry"

1814 Light Infantry Regiment, Service Record

4 October, 2010 at 4:47 pm Leave a comment

Convicts & Prison Hulks

I made another discovery today, again in Ancestry.com This time I was searching the recent addition to Ancestry’s convict records, the “UK Prison Hulk Registers & Letter Books, 1802-1849″. I found my 4g.grandfather!

Convicted of bigamy, in fact Thomas MILLS married 3 times. He married first to Sarah CUTTRISS / CUTTRESS in 1805 in Ely, then (as Thomas MILLER) he married Rhoda WINNELL in 1813. Finally (as Thomas Ward MILLS) in 1825 he married Ann POCKNELL, before he was taken to Newgate Prison in 1827. (At his trial, when asked about his 3rd marriage he said that – having deserted his 2nd wife – years later when he wrote to her and she didn’t write back, he assumed she was dead and so felt free to marry again.)

There’s a wonderful record of his various trials in the Old Bailey Online records in 1827 (real “he said, she said” comments). Thomas was finally found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years. However he never arrived in Australia – three years later he petitioned for pardon and that pardon was granted.

In the collection of UK Prison Hulk Registers on Ancestry.com, it was exciting to actually see the record of him in the hulk York, which was moored in Portsmouth Harbour. According to this document, he served 3 years 11 months and 18 days of his sentence before he was pardoned. The UK Prison Hulk Registers are digitised copies of documents held by The National Archives (UK) in PCOM 4 & HO 9.

This was another reminder about new digitised collections making it easier to access copies of original documents.

Incidentally, Thomas’ son (Robert MILLS – aka Robert CUTTRESS) was convicted of “poaching with a gun” and was transported to Tasmania. Digitised copies of many Tasmanian convict records can be found online at http://www.archives.tas.gov.au.

York prison hulk

Thomas Ward MILLS, prisoner on the York hulk

27 September, 2010 at 7:09 pm 1 comment

Alien Arrival document

I was preparing to teach a class about Ancestry.com & this prompted me to look at some collections added recently. I was most excited to find the arrival into England of my 3g.grandfather, Samuel SHUTER, from what is now Poland.  I have probably looked for that record, on and off, for about 15 years, but had eventually decided that I was unlikely to find a shipping record from continental Europe to England.

Anyway, I found him – amongst the UK Aliens Entry Books, 1794-1926. The first document was his Certificate of Arrival, 14 Feb 1846, from HO2, certificate 95. The second document was his subsequent arrival on 25 Sep 1854. (HO3 piece 75) This latter was in a book of correspondence, and now I will try to determine if I can obtain a copy of the correspondence referred to in this index.

Anyway, it’s a reminder to me of the new collections being added to sites like Ancestry, and the value of trying to keep checking new collections added.

Samuel Shuter arrival in London

Arrival Certificate, 14 February 1846

27 September, 2010 at 5:05 pm 1 comment


Discoveries and musings of a family history researcher and instructor - including tips and hints.

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