Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 7: Disease

One may not always equate disease with natural disasters, other examples being earthquakes or hurricanes, but they are part of the history of people and communities and they are a product of nature, in these cases a most virulent kind that does not involve the destruction of property.

The world does not see epidemics of the scope that existed before the discovery of vaccines or development of modern hygiene practices. But even into the 20th century, in many regions where our ancestors lived, communities were often attacked by diseases. If you want to count the types and numbers of epidemics that we know about just in recorded history, there is a list on Wikipedia (List of Epidemics).

Very commonly in past centuries, smallpox, cholera, influenza and plague killed thousands of people, sometimes millions, before they were checked or ran out of steam. Today most are confined to less-well developed regions of the world, where living conditions are poor and good hygiene virtually non-existent. In developed countries we have learned how to control or eradicate most of them through maintaining ourselves in better health and with inoculations. We still see small pockets of sicknesses we thought we had rid ourselves of in areas where people have determined they do not need vaccines, but thankfully they are small in number.

Family historians will undoubtedly come across examples in their own families where ancestors contracted and even died of diseases we don’t hear much about any more. I wrote about the Scourge of Phthisis (Tuberculosis) in 2015 and how it had killed great-grandmothers of my wife and me. I have come across references to this particular malady in many records.

I know that the main community in which my Shepheard ancestors lived – Cornwood, Devon, England – according to the church burial register, was visited by cholera, measles, typhus, smallpox and whooping cough. These were recorded only by two incumbents in two periods between 1770-1772 and 1799-1823. We do not have causes of death in church records for the other years between 1685 and 1993 but can reasonably surmise that, at least in the early centuries, disease was also a factor in the deaths of residents. A high proportion of the deaths in this area, prior to the 20th century, were children and infants as I described in a post title Trends in Ages of Death in Cornwood Parish, Devon in 2015.


One of the last major epidemics in modern times was the Spanish Flu in 1918-20. Estimates put the death toll between 75 million world-wide. Not since the Plague of Justinian in 541-545 (25-50 million, 40% of population) or the Black Death in 1346-50 (75-200 million, 30-60% of population), has the number been so high. Hundreds of thousands more died during the Great Plague of the 1660s. Early European explorers brought diseases with them to foreign shores, unleashing devastating results to indigenes populations, completely eradicating many communities. While this was not strictly caused by only natural conditions, the result was the same.

Not all death or burial records indicate what the causes of death were. In the case of many people, especially children dying within a short period it may be useful too look at whether disease was the reason. Information about those events may be found in newspapers or other historical publications.


Disease, particularly when widespread is no less a disaster than an earthquake or hurricane. While not caused by geologic or atmospheric processes it is still a part of nature.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Organizing and Storing Your Family History Data – My Thoughts

A friend of mine, actually an uncle of my grandsons, has recently been the recipient of his aunt’s voluminous family history files and is now going through the process of organizing and storing them. His Aunt Marion worked for decades assembling information about their family, storing most of it on paper, though. She was never really efficient or familiar with computers and genealogy programs. So Sandy’s task of preserving the data is immense.

He has asked how I keep my files and what programs I use as he is aware of the years I have put into finding family information. He does access my family data on our personal website which uses The Next Generation software – which I do heartily recommend for people who want to put their material online and accessible to other family members.

Sandy is like many people, using laptops as a primary method of working. I still have a desktop that is in use all day, every day, with two large monitors so that I can open several files and websites at the same time. I also like the ideas of being able to see more of the files I am working at and using a separate keyboard. It’s just the way I work.

Sandy has asked my advice about family history software and computer equipment on a few occasions. I don’t usually write here about how to organize data, as there are so many others who offer such great advice. But I thought I would answer his questions as part of a blog post and share some of my thoughts on organization and preservation of data with other readers. So here are some of Sandy’s questions and comments over the past several weeks along with my replies to him:

Wayne:  I was informed that you have now taken charge of all Marion’s boxes of family files. Over the years she gave me lists and summaries of family information but not copies of actual BMD or other documents. Through my own subscriptions I have downloaded a few documents, mostly censuses. But I have not spent a lot of time with the families.

Sandy: I have huge numbers of BMDs and many other original documents and letters.  Many early photos as well. This family treasure is open to you of course. I will need to email you quite extensively in a few months from now on the best equipment to buy and how best to arrange this material. I figure it will take me several years to input everything, but that is what i am going to do. I look forward to doing the work and am now taking a first look at everything. I have already started to add much data to MyHeritage set up. You have access to this I believe. God knows I have grabbed hundreds of pieces of data from your info online!

Wayne: I am happy to help with any organization suggestions. I was glad to hear that Marion’s vast treasure trove of data was not trashed and that someone like you with an interest in family history took it all over. Yes I do have access to your family tree on MyHeritage but have to confess I have spent practically no time looking at it. Just did so and discovered so many photos of your ancestors as a start. Wonderful! It does look like you have a great beginning with your family tree on MyHeritage.

In terms of sharing documents and files, we might set up a Dropbox where each of us can put copies and take copies. I have done away with a lot of paper files now, except for the originals that have come down through family members. They are, in my mind, the same as antiques and physical memorabilia and need to be kept. Any documents I have found online are stored digitally now, in specific family files, on my computer  – and backed up offsite in the cloud, of course (never forget to do that).

I only have my entire tree on our Shepheard family site – although it needs a bit of updating. I did end up with a copy on MyHeritage years ago because I had stored it with a predecessor company that was taken over by MyHeritage. It is woefully out-of-date but I still get notices of matches regularly through my subscription. Unfortunately many of those matches are wrong or I never hear from other tree-owners when I ask questions or confirm matches.

I do regularly visit Ancestry and have found several relatives on some trees there. I have made a few contacts there with who I have shared information. I also have had (related) people contact me through my blog posts look me up, as well as through the websites I maintain for my Online Parish Clerk volunteer position.

Anyway I am looking forward to learning more about my grandsons’ family through you.

Sandy: I have purchased a MacBook Air. It is quite small, but I do my work on a small table in my bedroom or on my lap in the living room on my Lazyboy.  I also have an apple iPad and will probably buy an iPhone as well. Apple does not seem to like sharing with android, so, I will go all Mac.

Wayne: Good luck with your organization of all the new data. There are some genealogical programs suitable for Mac users of course if you want to keep your data on your own machine where, incidentally and most importantly, it can be backed up to one of the cloud servers. If you are not already connected to something like Carbonite or one of the others then I very strongly recommend it. I have had a computer crash before and lost hundreds of files and emails I had saved, including my latest family history summary. I do not want to go through that again, especially with all the data and photos I have stored digitally. My daughter has us set up on Carbonite which automatically scans our computers and updates regularly. I am copying this email to her in case you want to consult with her about the technology.

I do recommend that you scan all documents and photos and keep them on your own computer or other device and so they can be backed up. The originals should be placed in archival binders, file folders or boxes to preserve them. All my family photos are now in binders for safekeeping and future access. You may have read my blog post on Digitizing Memories a few months ago. All of our immediate family albums have been scanned and I am in the process of uploading them to Google Photos so that our kids and grandkids can see them. I will do the same with the six leather-bound albums of historical photos one of these days. The individual photos in those, though, have been scanned and are on my computer. That is one of the very important things to do with such material so that if anything happens to the paper records (floods, fire, vandalism, etc.) you will still have the memories saved.

Sandy: I have been learning about memory sticks and how to use them.

Wayne: Memory sticks are fine for transferring data from one place or person to another. As with other forms of copying and storage – floppy disks, VHR tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc. – very little is known about how long they will last. I think the common perception is that they won’t last forever and that eventually they will all fail, be replaced or the information on them will become degraded. The safest place I have found to preserve information is on one of the subscriber sites where storage of data is maintained in the cloud but still accessible anytime, anywhere and by anyone you choose.

By the way, whatever method you choose to organize and store information, be sure there is someone who will be able to inherit it or take over management of it when you are gone. Otherwise the information could be lost forever.

Sandy: I think that I will continue with MyHeritage and my experiment with one of the others. I haven’t seriously got a plan yet. I am still reading through the documents which will take the next six months or so.

Wayne: Once your history data is entered into whatever program you use you can throw away the scraps of paper. Again, I keep my families all in separate folders, in an overall Genealogy folder, on my hard drive, so they are easy to find, review and update. As you go back in time the numbers of families increases exponentially, so you need to keep separate files in order to be able to recall and work on the data. I find it easier to do on the computer while I know others still have file cabinets full of paper.

MyHeritage is fine for organizing data (and finding cousins) but it is not a place where everyone can access it if you want to share with family members. Nor are any of the other similar online sites. Copying information, especially photos, is challenging on MyHeritage as one cannot get a very good quality reproduction. Again it is important that you have someone who can take over the site when you are gone. Not all websites or services have a way to assign a beneficiary but most do allow a second contact person or co-manager. A serious problem can occur when a subscriber dies and no one takes over or renews the subscription. In those cases, all data may be deleted.

A separate family history website serves the purpose of sharing data as does a Dropbox folder. The latter is also a good way to store information.

Sandy: Do you secretly desire to write a dialogue or a book on your family? I have no illusions about my talent as a writer, even if I did study literature and history in college. But I see such a cavalcade of historic flow here that it makes me what to organize everything together verbally.

Wayne: I have written a book on my Shepheard ancestors in Devon. It was printed with a soft cover and distributed to those family members who were willing to pay for the cost of printing. It had histories of each generation back to my 8th great-grandparents and contained copies of all BMD, census and other records. I wanted to be able to share what I had learned with the family. I just finished a shorter version for Linda’s paternal ancestors. We have not got beyond her 2nd great-grandparents yet but at least it’s a start. My brother-in-law has done a DNA test, so we hope we can find ancestors further back through other cousins who may have also tested.

As for writing ability, I always tell people anyone can set down their thoughts. If they need help they can always find others to edit or proofread. I wrote about this in another blog post last year, Helpful Hints to Writing Anything.


Readers of this post may have many comments on technology, equipment or methodology. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Who's living with who?

A query from one of my distant cousins on the Devon Rootsweb list posed a question about why some people were labelled as visitors or lodgers when they were, in fact, related to the head of household. In the case of Pamela’s finding, it seems the head of household’s mother was referred to as a “lodger” rather than as his mother. You can find the thread of the discussion here.

Anyone who has been through census records, on any continent, which I imagine includes everyone reading this post, has likely found inconsistencies in how information was recorded – not counting misspellings – particularly with regard to relationships. Some records may not indicate there was a familial connection. Others may have the wrong relationship.

I wrote about relatives name Charles Pearson a while back (What can you find out from a will? Part 3). I was trying to track down a great-granduncle of that name. Another man named Charles Pearson had been named in his aunt’s will (Blog 170) but I was having a difficult time tracking him down as well and figuring out who his father was. I found the Charles named in the will on the 1901 England census, living with an older man of the same name. He was shown as a nephew of the older Charles. The older Charles had been born in Australia which was important information because my great-granduncle had been born there. That kind of confirmed in my mind that both were the family members. The younger Charles turned out to be the son of another great-granduncle, James Pearson who had died in 1897 when young Charles was only five years old. Anyway, young Charles ended up being mostly raised by his uncle and aunt. To make a longer story short, in 1911 he was living with his married cousin, Emmie (Pearson) Taylor, a daughter of the older Charles, but he was described as a brother-in-law of Emmie’s husband, Joseph. Quite obviously Charles and Emmie thought of themselves as siblings; either that or the enumerator did not know how to describe someone who was a cousin of the wife of the head of the household.

I have found many children who were living with grandparents, siblings or aunts and uncles, as shown on census records. That indicates to me that families were quite close and tended to take care of each other when times required it. Sometimes step-children were labelled as in-laws, or vice versa. Before adoption was formalized, children may have been recorded as step-children or just sons and daughters. Often they were been shown with the head of household’s name even when they had not been formally or informally adopted. I have found a few people by searching for them using their forenames only.

In my wife’s family, I found her great-grandparents, William and Mary Ann (Anderson) Milne, and her 2nd great-grandmother, Isabella (Norrie) Anderson, on the 1871 Scotland census, living at the same address. At first I was not sure these were the right people as one surname was written as Mills. The reproduction of the image was also not of great quality either which added to the uncertainty. From the names of all the people in the household, along with their ages, places of birth and occupations, though, I concluded they were Linda’s ancestors.
 
1871 Scotland Census - 111 High Street, Forres, Morayshire - showing families of William & Mary Ann Milne and Isabella Anderson (retrieved from ScotlandsPeople 4 September 2017)
On the particular census record there were two heads of families in the building. One was William, of course, and the second was Isabella Anderson. Attached to William’s family was an Elizabeth Anderson, servant. From the surname it might have been assumed this person was related. In fact we believe she was William’s sister-in-law, Mary Ann’s sister. In Isabella’s household was a two-year old, Mary Ann McLean, a granddaughter. She turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of another sister of Mary Ann and Elizabeth, Isabella. I have not yet found what happened to this Isabella. It is possible that she married or died before the 1871 census. At any rate, Mary Ann McLean was still living with her grandmother in 1881 although I have not found her after that census. So we had all kinds of history on this one document, even though some of it was confusing.

In the discussion about relationship issues on censuses, there were many suggestions about how this might come about. Most people responding think that the enumerator was “not sure who the old lady in the corner was” or had been misinformed by whoever they talked with. Both sides may have been uninformed as to the rules of recording people. In this case the enumerator may have assumed they were to fill our whether the individual was being supported as a member of the head of household’s family rather than paying rent as a lodger might. References to the rules were offered by one person in the discussion of this case. One of the last comments was, “It's worth remembering that the head of the household had to understand the census requirements and communicate the information to the enumerator. In an age of low literacy (and Devon accents) it was often up to the enumerator to make the decision.


We can only presume why such entries were made the way they were. But it is always useful to look further, especially when the surnames are the same. There may be a family member lurking as a visitor or servant.