Tuesday 19 December 2017

So what is the point of genealogy?

The Oxford dictionary says genealogy is the “study and tracing of lines of descent.” That is really kind of a dull-sounding subject. I actually find exposing the roots of my family quite entertaining.

Anyone reading this post is likely involved in family research activities – like me possibly extensively. We kind of take it for granted that everyone should be interested in the history of their ancestors and we are usually a bit disappointed when all we meet are glazed-over expressions when the subject comes up.

The results of genealogical studies have no commercial value, unless you are trying to publish and sell a book about an event your ancestors might have been a involved in; they are not part of any production of goods or services that others want or would pay for; they certainly don’t help to alleviate any ills of society. The money we spend, though, does support various commercial entities and archives that provide employment, so in that respect they do contribute to the economy.

I have discovered a great deal about where and how my ancestors lived by sifting through thousands of pages of parish records (Now that can be dull!), working as a volunteer to assist others find their ancestors (That can be rewarding!) and in researching data for articles I have written (That can be educational!). I have also participated in many courses, as well as webinars and conferences related to genealogy. They were all enlightening and valuable to my learning how to search for information in old records and to meeting other interesting people engaged in similar pursuits. And I have published a lot about our family's history in articles, on this blog and in a book especially assembled for family members.

I think my understanding of general history is better having found actual people related to me who were alive during important events of the past few hundred years. I have also been able to combine my geological expertise with my genealogical experience to appreciate what and how physical conditions affected the lives of my ancestors. That has resulted in even more things to write and talk about.

In reality, no matter how much work we do or what sources we investigate, our studies of past family members can only take us back so far. We are lucky if we can find information on ancestors in records prior to the 18th century (notwithstanding the many people who insist they are descended from Charlemagne!).

We may have had relatives who fought with Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805; there may have been family members who are listed as victims of the Great Plague in 1666; perhaps an ancestor was a carpenter or mason who came to help rebuild London after the Great Storm of 1703; or maybe there were people related to you who made the long and arduous voyage to America in the 17th and 18th centuries to pursue new opportunities and a better life. These would be very interesting stories if we could uncover the details of those individuals’ involvement and experiences.

Most of us find it exciting if we come across some distant cousin who was in trouble with the law. It’s like falling into a new James Paterson novel only we have a personal connection with the perpetrator (hoping, though, there was no homicide involved).

Now there are ways to analyze DNA. Who does not aspire to find a direct physical connection to some noteworthy person of history, perhaps even royalty? Or be able to trace their way back to the beginnings of the human species in Africa and see definitively what paths their ancestors took that resulted in their families being where they are today. All of that seems tremendously exciting, as well as in tune with complex technical aspects of the society in which we live.

The main point of genealogy for me, I guess, is just in satisfying a curiosity about my family’s history and where I come from. Equally important, it fills many hours of my retirement that would otherwise be empty. That would be very dull, indeed! We should certainly be thankful for those thousands of people who have gone before us to record information and make it available in print or online so we can read it, otherwise we would not have such a pastime to enjoy at all.

The period that includes the lives of my ancestors encompasses but a few grains in the sands of time of human history. We cannot trace our specific familial origins back thousands of years even though we know we had direct ancestors who lived that long ago. So is the exercise really all that significant?

I think what I am saying is that we should not take it all very seriously (unless, of course, it’s your business). Our research will not add much, if anything, to any documentation of historical events but really only satisfy some of that curiosity I mentioned above. Not that we should not approach it with the idea of doing it right and demonstrating the connections we uncover are true.

Family history studies, I believe, are supposed to just be about enjoying the experiences of discovering stories about people to whom you may be related, especially if you can learn whether you have shared similar experiences, interests or abilities, however far apart in time they might have been.

So – are you having fun – reading obituaries and other similarly exciting tales?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

~Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC

Tuesday 12 December 2017

My Grandfather and Wild Bill Hickok

OK, the title above is a bit of a mis-direction. My grandfather did not know Wild Bill Hickok. But he may have heard about him while he was growing up in Kansas.

Edwin Miller was born in Manhattan, Riley County, Kansas on 17 February 1870. His parents, Isaac and Alice Miller had migrated to the area from Indiana, initially by wagon train, in 1866. They settled on bottom lands of the Big Blue River in June 1868, having stopped for a year or so in Westfield, Illinois, where their first child was born. The railroad had just reached the Manhattan area bringing with it farmers and business people looking for new opportunities. Their original homestead probably lies under Tuttle Creek Lake, formed after the Big Blue River was damned for the purpose of flood control in 1951.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railway, Union Pacific Railway and Kansas Pacific Railway were prime factors in the expansion of settlement in the western US. Several sites along the Kansas section became centres for the distribution of goods and services, including the burgeoning cattle industry of Oklahoma and Texas. 

The Kansas Pacific main line shown on an 1869 map highlighting locations of the towns of Manhattan and Abilene. The thickened portion along the line indicates the extent of the land grants available to settlers. At the time of the map, the line extended only as far as western Kansas (section in green). The extension to the Colorado Territory (section in red) was completed the following year. (retreived from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017)

Abilene became an important terminus of the Chisholm Trail, where cattle from south Texas were driven and sold.
1873 Map of Chisholm Trail with subsidiary trails in Texas (retrieved from Wikipedia Commons on 12 December 2017) completed the following year. 
(retrieved from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017  
To get back to Wild Bill and my grandfather – James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok succeeded Thomas James Smith as Abilene’s Police Chief. The city was one of many centres established following the introduction of the railroads into the region, in particular for the sale of cattle. Among some of the more notorious others in Kansas were Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Newton and Wichita. Abilene was a lawless place until Smith’s appointment on 4 June 1870. Among his actions, he sternly enforced the town bylaw prohibiting the carrying of guns and clamped down on men, mainly drovers, who wanted to let off steam after a long ride on the cattle trail. Dance hall girls were restricted to locations south of the railroad tracks (the Devil’s Addition). Smith was killed trying to arrest accused murderers and outlaws Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles on 2 November 1870. Hickok was a reputed and fearsome gunfighter. He lasted until December 1871 and ended with the shooting of saloon owner Phil Coe and the death of Deputy Marshall Mike Williams.

Manhattan is only about 40 miles from Abilene. It is certainly probable that the Miller family heard about the goings-on in Abilene and the gunplay that was rampant there and in other towns. The Miller family farmed in Riley County until 1893 when they left to homestead in Oklahoma. Young Edwin may have grown up hearing such names as Bat Masterton, Clay Allison, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin or Wyatt Earp. All were in Kansas during the 1870s and 80s.
Photo of a train of covered wagons, oxen and men on horseback setting our from Manhattan, Kansas about 1860 (retrieved from Kansas Historical Society website 8 December 2017)
I wonder if my grandfather knew about these larger-than-life men living at the time he was growing up. It’s curious to me now that he grew up in a time and place not far removed from where the likes of Wild Bill Hickok lived out part of his life. Looking back on my experiences with my grandfather, I never connected him or his family with the Old West that I saw on TV many years later. Of course, at the time I did not know where he came from and could not appreciate the time period in which he was raised.

Did he play “Cowboys and Indians” the way my friends and I did when we were young in the 195s.? Did he give any thought to their lifestyles or attitudes? Or was the idea of people carrying guns and causing havoc part of normal life? Or was he too busy helping out on the home farm and exploits of the gunslingers never really impacted rural communities such as Manhattan, Kansas?

Did Edwin Miller ever hear about Wild Bill Hickok? I really have no idea. I would like to think he did, if only through reports in the local newspapers. I hope he did not think of such men as heroes though. Most of them, other than perhaps Thomas James Smith certainly were not!

Tuesday 5 December 2017


DNA tests have been in the genealogical news often recently. Every company who offers testing seems to have a special price on for the US Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Most blogs I read have posted comments on the tool, encouraging readers to get their DNA evaluated and see if any new cousins pop up.

I have dealt with the subject before (DNA Matches) when I commented on my own experiences. They have been mixed but I still hold out hope that something will come from the Y-DNA results of some family members.

National Geographic of course has added its voice to testing, offering readers a discount on to join its GENO 2.0 project. They indicate over 820,000 people have already taken part. Results of tests are touted to give participants their regional ancestry makeup as far back as 200,000 years, a deep ancestry report showing where ancestors lived and migrated, their hominin ancestry and now historical genius matches. The latter might show which famous geniuses might be relatives.

In the most recent, Christmas issue of Family Tree (UK), there is an article about a DNA project to build a worldwide family tree. (By the way, I have a contribution in that issue as well about Your ancestors and the Little Ice Age which I hope you will read.)

The article starts off with, “An ancestry DNA firm has set up a unique research initiative with universities across the world to create a global family tree based on people’s DNA.” They want to produce a detailed genetic map with their One Family One World project. They have developed lesson plans that span science, geography, history and social studies to show people how we are all connected. Their objectives are interesting and laudable.

In all the discussions about DNA testing there have also been alarms raised about how the information could be used or obtained by groups or agencies that individuals getting tested never anticipated. James Tanner commented on some of the recent news reports in his blog post of 20 November 2017, Is genealogically submitted DNA discoverable in a criminal investigation? Basically he says, don’t worry about it…the rules of evidence likely preclude the likelihood of law enforcement ever getting their hands on the data. I would not be surprised, though, to see life insurance companies trying to find out how you tested in order to assess your health risks better.

Anyway, to get back to the livingdna website, my first reaction to the idea of trying to assemble a world-wide tree was…Why?

I personally doubt that it is possible to find out how all 7.6 billion people in the world today are related or how they came to be where they are. Man…it is hard enough to find all the living members of my own extended family and learn who they are, where they live and what they do.

It may be a laudable exercise to show how everyone is related if we go back far enough, but we basically already know that from anthropological, archeological and geological studies. Is there really a point to finding out how a farmer in a remote location of Qinghai province, China, is connected to a dentist is Pasadena, California. Genealogy has its limits, mostly due to records only going back a few hundred years. Beyond that it’s unreasonable to think we can confirm familial relationships. DNA may tell us something about the story of migration of our particular forebears, but that is likely to be hundreds if not thousands of generations past. Hardly relevant if you are looking for your 3rd great-grandparents!
Early Human migration patterns (retrieved from https://www.thinglink.com/scene/844602605974847489 webpage 5 December 2017)
The livingdna project kind of reminds me of the goals of the FamilySearch Family Tree which is composed of linked trees submitted by some 22 million users. Over the years I have looked at some of the results, for people in my family I know a lot about, and found many instances where information was just plain wrong. One missed tie between individuals means a whole series of branches will be suspect. Not to demean their efforts but multiply a single mistake by millions and you really have to question the usefulness of the whole project.

DNA tests are a great tool to use for finding relatives, mostly those still living. They might, though, offer a different perspective on the family and perhaps even some new names. Using it to go back several generations is of limited value unless you find those living cousins who might have copies of the documents that demonstrate family connections. Past a couple of generations any DNA similarities might well only fall in the margin of error and it won’t be possible to know if it is real.

Believing that you can go back thousands of years to find ancestors is a fairy tale. Migration patterns are an interesting subject but that is information you can get from many scientific studies.

The livingdna program looks very interesting but, outside of educating people about the common origins of humanity, its goals unite mankind in a common tree may be beyond what is really possible. Check it out!

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 10: Appalachian Storm 1950

I have mentioned major storms in some previous posts about natural disasters and their effects on people and communities. This past weekend marked the anniversary of a severe early winter tempest that devastated many parts of the eastern United States. Most readers of this blog will not remember it but their parents might. It happened right about the time that television was making its way into private homes, so perhaps not as many people would have seen the pictures or newscasts as is the case today.

It also happened at a time when atmospheric CO2 levels were not very high, so storms of this magnitude occurring during this and previous periods could not be blamed on anthropogenic climate change associated with that so-called greenhouse gas. The storm was just one of those big events that came around every once in a while – and always had – when meteorological conditions combined in particular ways.

As described in Wikipedia (and in several other reports), the “Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 was a large extratropical cyclone which moved through the Eastern United States, causing significant winds, heavy rains east of the Appalachians, and blizzard conditions along the western slopes of the mountain chain. Hurricane-force winds, peaking at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) in Concord, New Hampshire and 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) in the New England highlands, disrupted power to 1,000,000 customers during the event. In all, the storm impacted 22 states, killing 353, injuring over 160, and creating US$66.7 million in damage (1950 dollars). At the time, U.S. insurance companies paid more money out to their policy holders for damage resulting from this cyclone than for any other previous storm or hurricane. The cyclone is also one of only twenty-six storms to rank as a Category 5 on the Regional Snowfall Index.”
Surface analysis showing cyclone near time of maximum intensity on 25 November 1950 
(retrieved 20 November 2017 from Wikipedia)

According to authors, Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini, in their books, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes 1 and 2, the 1950 storm “represents perhaps the greatest combination of extreme atmospheric elements ever seen in the eastern United States. We feel that this storm is the bench mark against which all other major storms of the 20th century could be compared.”

The New England Historical Society documented the event here. See also The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 summarized on the LEX18.com (the Lexington, KY news website) last week.

The 1950 storm was not the first to rampage over the Eastern US in the early winter season. A powerful blizzard slashed across New England on Thanksgiving Day in 1898 – hitting hardest in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts – disrupting transportation and communication, and leaving 20-foot snowdrifts in its wake. It caught many areas unprepared as it followed a warm Indian Summer period. Over 450 people were thought to have been killed. At sea the steamer Portland was overpowered by winds and sunk.

Other not-so-Thanksgiving Day storms:
·         1926 Arkansas tornado
·         1945 Boston nor’easter
·         1971 New York snowfall
·         1982 Hawaii hurricane
·         1988 North Carolina tornado
·         1991 California dust storm
·         1992 Gulf Coast to Eastern Seaboard tornadoes
·         1998 Washing State windstorm

You will find hundreds more if you search for destructive storms on any other day of the year – holiday or not.

History records major storms throughout the centuries of human existence, although it is only in the last few hundred years that the consequences have been set down in print. Prior to that, we have only geological data on which to base their existence and severity. A quick search of the Internet will bring up dozens of examples of extreme storm events in North American and Europe that have occurred almost on a regular basis during the past several centuries.

Most of the deadliest storms we hear about happened in the last 100 years mainly because reporting of such events was more complete. You have to go into historical records – which do not always contain a lot of detail, especially concerning meteorological data – to find out about similar events before the 20th century.

On 26 November 1703 (later to be the US Thanksgiving Day season) the Great Storm struck southern England causing widespread damage from the West Country to London. The maritime fleet was decimated with over 100 shipwrecks – including 13 royal Navy warships – and more than 8,000 seamen drowned.

Areas along the coasts of continents are most susceptible to hurricanes and typhoons that come in from the sea. Coastal towns and cities fare worse than areas further inland when these sorts of storms attack.

Everybody talks about the weather. Farmers, in particular, have been known to agonize over it. For much of mankind’s existence, weather has had a significant impact on survival, controlling agricultural success or the numbers and health of animals hunted or raised as food sources.

Besides the deaths of people in major storm events, there is always significant property damage which can cripple families under unforeseen financial burdens.

Chronicling of major storms falls well within the time period of genealogical studies. The 1950 time frame would not normally be a part of genealogical investigations but it did affect people three or more generations ago. More to the point, it certainly was not the first (nor will it be the last) intense storm to have an impact on communities.

It may be worth family researchers’ time to review the aspects of the environments in which their ancestors lived to see if natural disaster like storms, and associated wind or flood damage had major impacts on lives and livelihoods.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 9: Landslides

A recent news story out of Quebec, Canada, reminded me of another disaster that can affect people and communities. Earlier this month the bank along a portion of the Richelieu River collapsed leaving one home only a few feet away from falling into the chasm. Further erosion of the river bank continues, creeping further under the home’s foundation. The house has been condemned now as being unsafe and the owners have been forced to relocate. To make matters worse for this family, their insurance company will not pay to replace the house as this kind of loss falls into the natural disaster type of damage which is not covered by most policies.
Photo of 13 November 2017 collapse along Richelieu River (retrieved 16 Nov 2017 from The Weather Network website)
Situations such as occurred in Quebec happen often as lands along the margins of rivers or ocean and in mountainous areas give way to gravity, destroying everything in their path. Where people or property is present the damage can be more than just a natural erosion of land. Homes and businesses can be lost along with the lives of people caught unaware.

Throughout history there are many examples of landslides that ruined farms and communities. In some cases the slippages occurred over a longer period (weeks); in a few the events happened in just minutes. The latter inevitably were the most deadly as people in the path had little or no warning.

A 2014 landslide in Washington State took the lives of 43 people when a wall of mud, sand, water and trees virtually obliterated a residential community near the town of Oso.
An aerial image of the Oso landslide on 13 April 2014. Photo Credit: University of Illinois engineering professor Tim Stark (retrieved 17 November 2017 from phys.org website)
The area had received record-breaking rainfall in the preceding weeks, resulting in saturation of the slope. With the slide starting at a high elevation relative to the houses it built up a high degree of destructive energy against which little could withstand.

Along the southern coast of England, erosion has resulted in instability of the land. Major collapses have been records for the past five centuries. Normally they have begun with crack developing above the cliffs with subtle slipping of large blocks. Over periods of several days or weeks these blocks begin the slide toward the sea. Once moved, waves and currents begin their assault, taking away the material and leaving an undisturbed cliff wet hundreds of yards back from the original shoreline. And the process begins again.

One such event was chronicled in a special publication in 1840 (Coneybeare and Dawson’s memoir and Views of Landslips on the Coast of East Devon). In this book, the authors described the 1839 Bindon landslip in detail, and included several high quality illustrations. Landslips and erosion continue along the English coastline with many farms and towns in constant danger of being lost.

Like many other natural processes, landslides can result in devastating consequences. Often they accompany or are caused by earthquakes. Whether lives are actually lost – and there have been thousands over the centuries – livelihoods have certainly been impacted with loss of land and homes. In many instances, as with the recent case in Quebec, losses could not be replaced because either owners had no insurance or insurance policies did not pay out. In the past people may have been forced to leave areas where they had lived for decades, especially if their homes and businesses were gone.

A brief description of 26 catastrophic landslides of just the 20th century can be found here. A summary of landslides over the centuries can be seen here, The ten deadliest are listed here. The greatest loss of life occurred in Ningzia, China in December 1920 when a major earthquake triggered 675 landslides that resulted in massive destruction of property and claimed over 100,000 lives.

Genealogists might pay attention to the areas in which their ancestors lived to determine whether a natural event such as a landslide could have affected lives and livelihoods.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Alexander Cooper – Colour Sergeant, Cameronians, Scottish Rifles

My wife’s grandfather, Alexander Cooper, was a military man. In his later personal life he is said to have been difficult, almost tyrannical in the treatment of his children. His life story may explain part of that. I told quite a bit about the man in a post on 12 August 2014: Sometimes Those Family Stories Have a Grain of Truth. In it I only briefly mentioned his army career.

In this piece, relevant to this time of year, I will tell more about that period in Alexander’s life that may have significantly impacted his attitudes and approaches to people.

Alexander joined the British Army with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) on 14 August 1885, at the age of 18 (his attestation form says he was 19 years and 2 months old so he fibbed a bit about that). He was discharged on 30 June 1908, having spent most of his adult life as a soldier. During his service he almost certainly was imbued with a sense of order and a penchant for following the instructions of superiors in rank. That mind-set would likely have permeated his private life after he left the army, particularly when fate dealt him serious personal setbacks.

Alexander rose rapidly through the ranks achieving the position of Colour Sergeant in 1896 (the highest rank possible for non-commissioned soldiers). In addition to the time spent at the Cameronian headquarters in Hamilton, he also served in India (1894-1895) and South Africa (1901-1902). Toward the end of Alexander’s army career he was posted back to Glasgow with the Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, an established battalion that was linked with the Cameronians in 1881.

He met and married his first wife, Margaret Scott, in 1890 while stationed at the regimental quarters in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. She was then living on Auchingramont Road, in the nearby village. They moved to Church Street, Hamilton, shortly after their marriage. Alexander and Margaret had two children together, Mary Jane, born in 1892, and Alexander, born in 1895. Both children were born in Lossiemouth, Elgin, Scotland, where Margaret’s parents lived. Mary Jane died of measles in February 1895 on board the ship they were sailing home on from after a posting in India.

In 1901 the family was located in Kent, England, possibly a stopover on their way to a posting in South Africa. Alexander would have worked then at the Brompton Barracks. Following their time in South Africa, Alexander and Margaret returned to Glasgow. They were living on New City Road in 1907 when Margaret fell ill with heart disease and died.

Alexander met and married Elizabeth Walker in 1908 just before his discharge. Both were living in Glasgow at the time. No doubt Alexander appreciated the help Lizzie brought to care for his young son. Lizzie also had a child at the time, daughter Violet, born in 1905. The couple went on to have six children together between 1908 and 1917, the first born on Napiershill Street, Glasgow, and most of the rest when the family lived on Gayfield Street in the city.

The family endured another tragedy in 1916 when Alexander Jr. was killed in action near Bethune, France. He is buried in the local military cemetery there. Alexander is our lone family connection to WWI, having joined the Cameronians in the fall of 1914, just before his 19th birthday.

Another misfortune for Alexander’s family occurred in 1918 when Elizabeth suffered a severe mental affliction. The seriousness of her condition resulted her being institutionalized. Their children, shockingly, were told she had died. (I will deal with that story and subject in a later blog post.) Alexander was now left with a family of young children, the oldest ten years of age and the youngest only one.

Having lost a wife, a daughter and a son, and now losing a second partner, is it any wonder that Alexander may have been overwhelmed with grief and uncertainty? His military training did not prepare him for the new familial situation. His inability to relate to his children other than as a disciplinarian left them traumatized even more. All of them were either sent to live with grandparents or enrolled in boarding schools. The radical change to family life affected them all. Eventually they were separated, growing up under wildly different conditions.

It is important to remember that Alexander served his country faithfully and with distinction. His transition to private life, though, was met with unhappiness and misfortune.

He died in Glasgow at the relatively young age of just 60, felled finally by cancer.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

History and Care by the Church in Local Parishes

Many of the records we can find listing our ancestors, especially prior to civil registration, come from church records, at least in the British Isles. The churches were central to the local societies and, in many respects, governed the habits and deportment of the residents.

Comments can often be found in parish registers, about historical events as well as concerning the behaviour of parishioners. Ministers did not generally hold back when commenting on moral issues in particular. What family researcher has not found a reference to an illicit romance evidenced by a note in the baptism register about pre-marital relations?

The child might well be tagged with the label of bastard, if born out-of-wedlock or before the parents were married. Even the date of conception might be highlighted by clergymen. Such was the case for a 2nd great-grandmother of a friend of mine where a note was inserted into the 1790 baptism register for Lintrathen, Forfarshire, Scotland, saying the child was “begat in antenuptial fornication.”

I was reminded of the role of the church as well in looking at documents and publications for a course I have just started on Scotland 1750 to 1850: Beyond the OPRs (Pharos Teaching and Tutoring). I found a write-up on Campsie Parish, Stirlingshire (birthplace of my 2nd great-grandfather), in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1845 describing the church, its history and its activities, the author, Rev. Mr. James Lapslie, recorded how the church was involved in the formation and adjudication of all manner of the parish’s social structure:

I have all along been accustomed to consider these public religious meetings as beneficial to the manners of the country. The ecclesiastical discipline of this parish is still kept up. As for discipline against fornicators, two days doing public penance in the church, are required, besides a fine of a crown, for each guilty person, to the poor. There has been an opinion entertained, that this public penance has been productive of very bad effects in society; so far has an idea gone forth of this sort, that, for this reason, some writers have pretended to say, that so long as doing public penance was permitted, no person should be put to death for child murder; I am inclined to believe, that it would be much more the interest of the community, in a political light, that the laws of discipline should be more rigidly adhered to; for if once the vulgar of any country, consider incontinency as a venial fault, they are almost ready for the commission of any crime; and as l can easily see, that the shame of doing penance operates to deter others; in this point of view, it is to be considered as answering the ends of edification.

Publications like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland are great sources of information about areas of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The report on Campsie had a lot of information about the weaving and printing industries which employed many of my ancestors.

There are many historical and genealogical publications available now to download. One of the great sites I go to often is Archive.org. A quick search of the site for “Parish of Campsie” in the text of books resulted in 3,378 hits, 281 of them under the sub-category of genealogy. Many were family genealogies.

If you are doing research for your Scottish lines, as I have done recently, don’t forget to look for historical information that can give you important background to how and where your ancestors lived. And do check sites such as the Statistical Accounts and Archive.org for relevant material.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

The Protestant Reformation Anniversary

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences which initiated the break of reformers with the Roman Catholic Church.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in the local newspaper titled Guess why the tiny German town of Wittenberg is expecting two million visitors (Calgary Herald, Eliot Stein, October 14th). Stein comments on the activities the town has organized to celebrate the occasion. You might be able to read it here.

On 31 October 1517 (possibly 21 October on the current Gregorian calendar), according to legend, Luther posted his criticisms on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Copies of the documents were quickly circulated throughout Germany. By that time printing presses were in operation across Europe, no doubt contributing to the rapid dissemination of information and ideas to the masses.

1517 printing of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther

Formation of Protestant churches did not happen immediately but the die was cast and many other activists such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli took up the cause.

The reformation marks the beginning, in many European countries, of accurate recording of births, marriage and deaths. Genealogists celebrate this development every day.

The event, of course, happened during the depth of the Little Ice Age when most of Europe was caught up in devastating climatic conditions that made living harsh. Areas throughout the continent were hard-pressed to take care of their citizens, largely led by the Catholic Church. There was great social unrest as people struggled to find employment and food in order to survive. Local parishes were particularly under siege to fund support programs.

In many regions and countries, governments legislated new rules to prevent people from moving around, bringing even more crowds to some localities unable to even take care of their own. I suspect the new laws concerning recording of births, marriage and burials, in many of the newly-established Protestant regimes was really just a way to get a handle on who lived in their areas and who had the wherewithal to help out through taxes.

Anyway, the world did indeed change in 1517. The revolution in religious thought brought with it a great deal of conflict, between religious groups and with the ruling classes who attempted to maintain order and control. Many family historians will be aware of, and have ancestors who may have been a part of groups that dedicated themselves to change – such as the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) – who were the focus of violence, imprisonment and banishment. One such violent event in France was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre during which thousands lost their lives.
Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy, oil on panel by Francois Dubois, ca 1572-84 (original in Musee cantonall des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne)

Protestantism of course started long before the 16th century, but the date of 31 October 1571 was a turning point. Family historians everywhere will recognize how the event changed the lives of many of their ancestors.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

What do you do when you want to find families named Miller?

My mother was a Miller, not the kind that ground grain, although there were a few members of at least one line who did own a mill in Virginia, USA in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Miller is one of those very common names, probably originated from the occupation, that seem to be prevalent everywhere.

I wrote about the Miller family history in North America back in 2016 (Moving 7 – The Miller Family Goes West).

We in North America are descended from a man named John Conrad Miller, as discovered by my aunt in the 1970s. In her family history summary she said:

John Conrad Miller is the first American of this line we have found.  There were many German settlements, both in Ohio and Indiana, with numerous Millers among them.  But whether John came to the United States with his parents or came on his own cannot be answered.

Since John was a blacksmith, it is easy to conclude that he met Hannah Mayfield through her brother John, also a smithy.  The marriage of John and Hannah probably was performed in Jefferson County, Indiana, but the exact date is not known. It was not unusual in those days for a Justice of the Peace, living in a community, to perform a marriage then fail to record it when he made a trip to the county seat.  This may have been the case in this instance.

After their marriage, John and Hannah remained in Jefferson County for about a year. Their first child, Matilda Ann, was born there in September 1839.  In 1840, they were in Cincinnati, Ohio.

From the time Cincinnati was founded, through many decades that followed, the city was frequently devastated with Bubonic Plague. [Note: I think my aunt might have meant Cholera as I cannot find any mention of the plague as she described.]  This is cause to wonder if he took his family north to Mason in Warren County where their third child, Isaac M., was born, although the family was back in Cincinnati before the end of that year, 1843.  According to all reports available, John Conrad Miller died in Cincinnati in 1846 at a young age.

In 2010 I did finally find a marriage license for John and Hannah, issued in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, USA. John was a resident of Tippecanoe while Hannah lived in Jefferson County at the time. Now these two places are 150 miles apart and it is difficult to envision how John and Hannah came to meet considering people may not have travelled all that far in those times. My aunt might be right in her supposition that they were introduced by her brother. But then how did those two gentlemen meet?

The frequency of the Miller name is currently actually higher in North America (4,544 per million) than in Germany (241 per million) where my family line apparently originated - according to search information from the publicprofiler website. And John is the most frequent forename.
World statistics for the surname Miller from the publicprofiler worldnames website
We have only one reference to John Conrad’s birthplace, that on the 1880 US census for my great-grandfather, Isaac Mayfield Miller, one of John Conrad’s sons. It says his father and mother were born in Wertenberg [sic]. We know his mother’s birthplace is wrong – she was born in Maryland, USA – but the place name for his father is certainly interesting. We believe John Conrad was born in 1815 but that has not been confirmed either. His forenames could also have been Johann or Johannes and Konrad; his surname could just as well have originally been Mueller.

We cannot know if Wurttemberg is the right place as it was recorded on the census 34 years after John Conrad’s death, but it is a start. FamilySearch.org has a number of people of that name in its library, but none of them ever left Germany.

There is no Miller or Shepheard research going on with the Guild of One-Name Studies. There is a Miller DNA project though whose participants might prove useful one day.

Before his death I persuaded my cousin, a direct male descendant of John Conrad Miller, to take a Y-DNA test with FamilyTreeDNA. I wrote about that in a blog post, DNA Matches, earlier this year. There have been some matches but no one with whom we can definitively connect our roots. I live in hope!

Common names like Miller have their difficulties in separating families and finding roots, especially when migration occurred before passenger lists were saved. And without specific documents that indicate where individuals came from, it can be most disappointing.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 8: Volcanoes

When I gave a presentation on natural phenomena and family history last year, I was asked about whether and when we might experience a major volcanic eruption in Yellowstone. I said I did not expect such a thing for thousands of years yet and that we should not worry too much about it.

Coincidentally, shortly afterward National Geographic magazine featured the region in its May 2016 issue. The magazine had previously reported on the volcanic eruptions there in August 2009 (When Yellowstone Explodes). In that issue was a map showing what areas had been impacted by major eruptions during the last 18 million years. Great outpourings of lava have occurred at intervals of about 2.2 million years. The deposits are spread along a line extending 430 miles from northern Nevada to northwest Wyoming which resulted as the North American plate moved across a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle. The last eruption occurred about 640 thousand years ago suggesting it will be a very long time before we have to worry about another event.
Map of volcanic fields resulting from major eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano over the past 18 million years published by National Geographic in August 2009
Eruptions of this supervolcano have never affected human populations but the fear remains. Occasionally articles will appear in magazines and scientific reports about the NEXT BIG ONE and whether it will happen much sooner that what the timing of previous episodes may indicate. A story appeared on the National Geographic website last week by Victoria Jaggard titled Yellowstone Supervolcano May Rumble to Life Faster Than Thought.

I remain convinced that we do not have to be concerned about being wiped out by a Yellowstone eruption, at least within the next several hundred generations. But eventually it will happen.

With our lifetimes we have witnessed the effects of volcanoes spreading death and destruction in many part of the world. The most affected regions are those on the edges of tectonic plates such as the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean.

Historically there are many examples of ash and lava spreading over areas inhabited by humans. Most resulted in the deaths of scores of people and, for that reason, are worth reviewing in any family history study. Researchers may find that some of their ancestors were affected by the spread of volcanic ash and gas: sickness of themselves or their livestock; damage to environment and its impact on agriculture; and even death.

The devastation in Pompeii certainly would have ended many family lines when the mountain exploded in AD 79. We know communities nearby volcanoes can be quickly buried by lava and ash and their residents killed or forced to evacuate. Deleterious effects of ash and poisonous gases thrown into the atmosphere can be measured around the globe for many years after a major eruption.

Among the many that resulted in major death tolls are:
Death Toll
Mount Tambora
Mount Pelée
Nevado del Ruiz
Mount Unzen

Laki, Iceland

A major eruption in Iceland in June of 1783 resulted in millions of tons of ash and gas being ejected into the lower troposphere. Over several months it spread across Europe and into the Middle East. It has been estimated that over 23,000 people perished as a result of the toxic plume.


The last major eruption in Tambora in April 1815, its early explosions heard over 800 miles away. More than 90,000 people died in Indonesia alone. Over 24 cubic miles of gas and particulate were pushed into the stratosphere which then, within weeks, spread around the world. The Earth was blanketed by a shadowy, poisonous veil which caused havoc with climatic conditions: sunlight was reflected back into space; temperatures at the surface were cooled, and weather patterns were completely disrupted. The year following the Tambora eruption has been called the Year Without Summer because in most parts of the world in 1815, conditions were wet, cold and just plain miserable!


The paroxysmal eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia in August 1883 also spread dust and gas around the world. The initial blast was heard more than 2,000 miles away in Australia. A tsunami, almost 150 feet in places rolled over coastlines around the Pacific Ocean. Similar climatic disruption occurred as was caused by the Tambora event. In this case, reports were transmitted around the world almost simultaneously due to the improvements in broadcast technologies. Due to its proximity in time to today, this event has been more studied than any other volcanic event and provides a significant example of what can – and probably did – happen when such natural phenomena occur.
Lithograph: The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888)
Mount Pelée

More recently the top of Mount Pelée was blasted apart in May 1902. A resulting pyroclastic avalanche rolled down over the city of Saint Pierre killing virtually everyone in its path. Residents failed to heed the warnings of the eruption which began three weeks before the major event, assuming that only lava would be produced as had been the case previously. Many even stayed to observe the beginnings of the eruption, much as they do around other volcanoes around the world such as in Hawaii. In the end people failed to take seriously the power of a volcano and paid with their lives.

In terms of family history studies, volcanic events may have played an important role in changing the lives of many families in the past, in ways similar to that of the four outlined here. Such life-altering effects may have resulted from eruptions which occurred on the other side of world; a knowledge of natural history might be useful.