My aunt says that she has a teapot that came over on the Mayflower with her ancestors. Could this be true?
Let me start by saying that ‘anything is possible.’ However, when we talk about items that supposedly came over on the Mayflower, we need to be extremely skeptical. I’m sure your Aunt Gladys wouldn’t lie to you, and she sincerely believes it is true. Why shouldn’t she? Her grandparents wouldn’t lie to her, but we need to find the proof before we can accept this as true.
If we consult Land Ho! 1620 by Nickerson[i], we are told that the Mayflower was 64 feet in length at the keel, 90 feet long on the deck, and had a beam (width) of 26 feet at its widest point. If we were to collect everything that supposedly came over on that boat into one place, we would have to pack a large warehouse to store it all. With that said, let us forget about how impossibly over-stuffed this poor vessel of 180 tons capacity would be if all of this stuff indeed came over on it. We also need to put 102 passengers on board, the crew, and enough food and drinking water for the whole bunch. There would be other equipment required for sailing the ship, and the pilgrims had a shallop (a large boat) stored below decks for use in the new world. Any carrying capacity that was left would be used for a scant few personal possessions.
The number of items that could have come down to us was very few, to begin with. Let me ask you a question. If your toaster quits, and you go out and buy a new one, what do you do with the old one? Do you save it someplace because ten generations from now someone may cherish it? No, you throw it out. Why do you think our ancestors would have been any different?
In my opinion, probably a couple of items that came over on the ship are still in existence. They may just be preserved as very old antiques with no one sure of how they got to the New World. To prove that one of these came over on the Mayflower, you would need to establish a documented chain of custody. An example of such may appear something like the following.
Upon Mary’s death, she left her prize teapot to her daughter Elizabeth. “I leave my special teapot that I brought with me to the New World.” Elizabeth leaves it to her granddaughter. “…I leave my mother’s teapot that she left me.” If you have a chain like this, and it can use other documents such as letters and diaries instead of just wills, it would go a long way to proving this.
What is with those double years I sometimes see, like 1698/99? Didn’t they know what year it was?
I’ve found nothing that confuses the novice genealogist more than these dates. Some people mistake this notation for uncertainty, similar to when we list dates as “about” or “circa.” I’ve even seen some people who feel that this looks cluttered and confusing, so they pick one or the other arbitrarily. They probably think they are making things less complicated by doing this, but they are really adding to the confusion. These dates have a special and precise meaning.
Before we can fully understand their significance, we must first look at our calendar and its predecessor. The old calendar, used throughout Christendom until 1582, was the Julian Calendar. It was named for its creator, Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor. The year was precisely 365 days and 6 hours long and began on March 25. In this calendar, since March held New Year’s Day, it was considered the first month of the year. Each month was named after a god or something else important. July was named for Julius himself. A couple of decades later, another Caesar by the name of Augustus, decided we should have a month named after him too, and we have had August as a month ever since. The names that are pertinent to our discussion are September, October, November, and December. In Latin the prefixes Sept-, Oct-, Nov-, Dec- mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth respectively. They were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the Julian calendar. January was the eleventh and February was the twelfth. We start the year again with March as the first month and New Year’s Day on the 25th.
In 1582 Gregory XIII was the Pope, and it came to his attention that the year was actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than the 365 days 6 hours of the Julian calendar. This was discovered by the Venerable Bede, a British monk, in year AD 730. Gregory decided that an extra day should be added every 128 years, besides the extra day on leap year. This would keep the calendar from backsliding in respect to the sidereal year. Further, we would correct the discrepancy that had crept in by adding ten days. One last change was made and the New Year would be celebrated on January 1st. The names of the months would remain the same, even though their Latin meanings were no longer correct, to avoid confusion.
This is the calendar we use today, and it is known as the Gregorian Calendar. In 1582 it was adopted, and throughout the Western World people thought that good old Greg was great. We no longer had to worry about December becoming a summer month, and the new calendar was embraced by many nations. Even those that didn’t convert immediately did so within a few years. Germany for one saw the logic in this new system, and since France and Spain hadn’t fallen off the face of the Earth, they changed to the new calendar. There was only one major holdout, and that was the British and her colonies. It shouldn’t surprise anyone today that this happened since we just have to look at our reluctance to adopt the Metric System to find a similar situation.
Since the New England colonies were part of the British Sovereignty, they too clung to the old style calendar. They did, however, notice the confusion that a date such as February 10, 1642, could present to the rest of the world. Forgetting, for the moment, about the ten-day discrepancy, we can see we are still confused by the fact that we are not sure if January 1st or March 25th is the beginning of the New Year. If it is the old style, it hasn’t yet become 1643 so in the colonies it is 1642, and in the rest of Western Civilization, it is 1643. February 10, 1642, OS would actually be February 20, 1643, NS. These abbreviations are sometimes used and should be pretty straightforward. (OS=Old Style; NS=New Style) Most often you see the double date. February 10, 1642/3, which meant it was 1642 if you consider March 25th as the New Year, or 1643 if you consider January 1st. These double dates are always understood to be old style and therefore ten days behind the new style. Actually, all dates in the colonies and England should be considered old style between 1582 and 1752, unless otherwise noted.
Of course, nothing can be this simple, right? I am about to throw another vital consideration at you concerning these dates. In 1752 Parliament said, “Enough of this silliness!” They adopted the Gregorian calendar and became in synch with the rest of the western world. They decreed that September 3, 1752, would be changed to September 14, 1752. Couldn’t you picture town criers everywhere on September 2nd yelling, “Hear ye, hear ye, remember to set the calendar ahead before going to bed.” Now, in case you’ve been able to follow all of this, we have the final twist. You may have noticed; they added eleven days to the calendar instead of the ten we’ve been talking about. This is not an error and was necessary to bring things up to date. In 1700 one of those extra days that needed to be added every 128 years was used to keep the calendar accurate. The Julian calendar after 1700 was eleven days behind instead of ten. Now we not only have to decide if it is an old or new style date, and when was the New Year, we also had to determine if there is a ten or eleven-day difference. All old style dates before 1700 need ten days added to them, and all old style dates after 1700 need eleven.
By the way, if you would like to ask your favorite history buff a trivia question, try this one. What happened in England on September 9, 1752? The answer is, of course, nothing, since the date never existed per decree of Parliament.
My family has the right to bear a particular coat of arms. What does this mean? Will it help me trace my lineage?
I think the first question we need to address is whether or not your family indeed has the right to bear a particular coat of arms. So many have innocently assumed that they are because they have found a coat of arms labeled as belonging to a family bearing the same last name as theirs. This is just not true. So often this incorrect assumption has been made, that many books on a particular family’s history have been published with these errors stated as fact. Many families have old traditions about arms that really started in the 1800s with a similar misunderstanding.
This problem has been compounded by companies that offer to research and find your family coat of arms, or provide you with one. All these people do is find a device, real or otherwise, that has been attributed to someone in the past with your surname or a similar one. I have received these as gifts in the past and below are two examples of my “Downs” coat of arms from two different sources. They don’t even look the same.
You need to fully understand what a coat of arms is, and then you realize that they mean nothing in this country, only in the country where they were bestowed and recorded. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any good books on heraldry that are easy to understand. The good scholarly works are all technical and boring. I think one is better off remembering the purpose of arms, which was to recognize a knight on the field of battle, even though his face was covered by a visor. They were usually assigned to an individual and not an entire family, even though they did become inherited by progeny. I would think of them more like your license plate than your last name, and it would be like passing your license plate number to all of your children. Eventually, everyone with a particular last name would have the same license plate. The arms were passed down to one member of the family only and then recorded by the heralds.
Can a coat-of-arms aid you in discovering your roots? Only if you can trace your lineage back to someone for whom we have documentation of the right to legitimately bear those arms. Mere family tradition cannot be relied upon.
My local town hall will not let me see, or have copies of, the vital records of my ancestors/family. Is this proper/legal?
I have run into similar problems, and it varies from place to place. Some towns have not only been accommodating but have allowed me to sit at a table for hours and just sift through the old records. Yet there are other towns from which I have not been able to get a single scrap of information. The laws governing this are usually statewide, but I think that this makes little difference with individual towns. They basically do what they want and might make you fill out endless requests, reword, etc. Most of the time you still don’t get what you’ve asked for. Often they tell you it doesn’t exist, or those records were destroyed in a fire or something to make you go away. At one town hall I was told that for the protection of the documents, I would have to hire one of their people, at $100 an hour to look through the records with no guarantee that they would ever find what I was looking for. It didn’t seem to matter that I was carrying 2 pairs of white cotton archival gloves and explained my extensive experience; access denied!
The above examples are the extremes on both sides. Usually, you can get what you want by being nice. Understand that they probably are understaffed and may have more vital tasks to tend to at the moment. If they are busy, ask politely if you could return at a better time, and when that might be. Towns have many worries today, besides understaffing, that include being sued by people that don’t want their family records released, people who would not take proper care of the documents, someone who might steal some pages, identity theft, etc. Add to this our post 9/11 attitude of denying access to all information out of paranoia of terrorism.
But where do we draw the line on securing records and access? What good is even keeping these records if no one can ever look at them again? These are questions that are being addressed by the genealogical community. There is a whole website with a lot more information on this subject. It can be found at http://www.fgs.org/rpa.
How does that so many cousins, however many times removed thing work?
I think the best way to explain it is to refer to the genealogy chart below.
Tom and Jane are brother and sister. Their children, Jim and Bob, are first cousins. In the 4th generation, Mary and Susan are second cousins, and then naturally, Lisa and John are third cousins. As long as we are talking about people in the same relative generation, it is simple enough. Generation 3 are first cousins, generation 4 are second cousins, and generation 5 are third cousins.
What if we want to describe the relationship between Jim and Susan, who are not on the same generation level? We start like we did before going down the generations, but this time we stop when we get to the first of the two for whom we are calculating the relationship. At generation 3, the first cousin level, we find Jim. This gives us the “first cousin part.” We now have to drop down one more level to get to Susan. This is where the “once removed” part comes from. So Jim and Susan are first cousins once removed. Susan’s son, John, and Jim are first cousins twice removed.
Is it true that it is illegal to “rub” gravestones? What is “rubbing” gravestones?
The short answer is “yes, it usually is illegal.” Before we get into that, let’s explain exactly what rubbing a stone is. It is basically taking a piece of paper and temporarily affixing it to the face of the stone. You then take a crayon on its side, an oil pastel, graphite pencil lead, charcoal stick, etc. and you briskly shade in the paper. The result is a facsimile of the stone. This is done for several reasons including collecting them, having a keepsake of a loved one or ancestor, having a record you can refer to again and again without having to go back to the cemetery and reading stones that would otherwise be illegible.
Why is this illegal? Because it has a tendency to damage the stone for several reasons. The rubbing action, even through the paper, can be abrasive and speed the deterioration of the inscription. That is probably the most obvious reason but causes little damage compared to the other two. People also use items, such as wire brushes, to remove debris, lichen, etc. to get a clearer rubbing. The damage this can do is apparent. The most insidious form of damage occurs when pressure is applied to the stone during the rubbing process. This pressure stresses the stone and the higher up on the stone you rub, the more leverage you get, and the more stress that is applied. This stress weakens the stone and leads to breakage, and it hastens the separation of the layers of slate within a slate stone. Most of the oldest, most interesting and most valuable stones are made of slate. Eventually, as these stones flake away, the inscription falls apart and is forever lost. It should be remembered that this can damage, crack or break any stone of age.
However, gravestone rubbing can be a valuable tool for researchers. If you have legitimate reasons to do so, such as collecting all the inscriptions of a cemetery for a book and hence preserving their information for posterity, you may be able to get permission. This will have to come from the cemetery’s controlling body. It is safest to get this permission in writing and have it with you on your jaunts so you can produce it if the police should show up.
I have been told that I am descended from a Mayflower passenger/royalty/other famous person. How do I go about joining a lineage society?
That all depends on the society you wish to join. Each has their own requirements for membership, and an excellent place to start would be by contacting them. They can tell you what you need to prove, and what they will accept as proof. There are some things you can consider in general for all of these societies.
Is your ancestor someone on the official list of people that will qualify you for membership? Check to see if there is an official list. The Mayflower Society only takes descendants of 26 Mayflower passengers. My wife cannot join the DAR because her Revolutionary War ancestor, Lawrence Van Wart, despite capturing Major André, is not on the official list of patriots as he never officially enlisted in the army or militia. So this should probably be one’s first step.
Next, we need to prove your descent. If you have a supposed line of descent, perhaps the society could help you by saying that they know so much of it to be true. You only have to supply proof from here forward to yourself. But then again, they may not, but it is worth a try. Proof for these societies usually takes the form of official records of birth, death and marriage(s) for each person in the lineage. Usually, photocopies are not accepted, so they need to be certified copies.
Sometimes life can be easier if your grandparent, or some other relative, was a member of the society. They may let you then just prove your descent from your grandparent. Even if they require you to reprove everything, maybe you can find a copy of this relative’s paperwork, which could be a handy guide in the preparation of your own application.
There are a few things to be aware of through this process. In the past, people have used less than honest means to become members of these societies. So some lines that have been used in the past for membership are no longer accepted. Often you find what a researcher hopes to be true, rather than what can be proven. This leads to all sorts of false lines, now disproved, and incorrect family traditions. Beware.
I was adopted. I know quite a bit about my adoptive parents’ lineage but nothing of my birth parents’. How does this all relate to me?
Well, it actually all relates to you. Let’s first talk about your adoptive parents, their lineage and you. Once you were legally adopted, you were legally their son or daughter. From that point forward you had every right as any other child does, including the right of inheritance and along with this comes the family heritage. As far as I know, most lineage societies will let you join, even if you are adopted. I have assisted in this sort of paperwork on a few occasions, and I can’t recall the question even coming up.
If we were to start requiring that someone biologically belong to his parents, how could we be sure of anything? How can we be sure that one of our ancestors wasn’t silently made a part of a family as an infant, either because they were orphaned or abandoned? If their new family never shared the truth with them, they may not have known they were “adopted.” Also, there is always the possibility that a wife may have had an affair and gotten pregnant. If the husband never knew, he may even have assumed that the child was his. Obviously, if we required biology to be consistent with genealogy, it would create all sorts of complications and chaos.
In the case of biological parents, people pursue their family tree for different reasons. Often in these cases, a lineage society is not possible, but you should check because they all have different guidelines. Probably the most common reason for searching for biological parents’ lineage is the same reason many people who are adopted need to find their birth parents. Something is missing and it is the only way they can think of to feel whole. After they find their parent’s they may want to know more about that family’s history.
Another more practical reason for studying the genealogy of one’s birth parents is for medical history. This could lead to clues as to what diseases and disorders one may be prone to acquiring. When you visit a new doctor, they usually want to know what diseases run in your family, what your parents and grandparents died of, if anyone had diabetes or cancer. The subjects of medical and genetic genealogy are becoming more popular for these reasons.
The good news is most of the most recent versions of the more advanced genealogy software packages allow for multiple sets of parents so tracking both adoptive and natural parents in one place is possible.
Why do we need genealogists today? I got my whole family tree in an hour on Ancestry.com.
We need to understand what these sites offer and how they should be used. These sites are basically a genealogical forum where everyone, regardless of caliber, can upload and share their research. There are a couple of problems with this.
Since anyone can post their research on these sites, there is no quality control over the validity of the information. Someone could fabricate a fictitious lineage back to King Henry VIII and upload it. As long as the first several generations back were valid, it wouldn’t be long before others have added the false lineage to their dead ends on their family trees. Worse still, they will then repeat the erroneous information by uploading it as part of their family tree.
Most of the time, the information is shared in good faith. If you visit my Myths and Misconceptions page, you can see several examples of wrong information that has circulated in print even before the internet. Most people who use these sites, get back to a dead end, possibly using research from a high-quality researcher. If they dig some more, they find that someone has found 8 more generations on this same line they are researching. Our poor fellow has no way of knowing that the reason the first tree he found omitted these generations was not that the researcher didn’t find them, but because they were disproved over 50 years ago. Unfortunately, as more people use the site and upload their own work, the erroneous material will appear on many more trees than not.
Another thing we need to address is sources. Most amateur genealogists don’t seem to bother with recording sources. The problem is that no one can check their work. Do you know that great great grandma was a Garner because you have a copy of her birth record, or because your mother said she seems to remember she was a Garner? You can see the difference in the value of the information based on the source. Both are uploaded to sites like these without any differentiation.
An excellent professional genealogist will not only be thorough in his research but will document where he got his information. He will most likely follow BCG (Board of Certified Genealogists) standards. If something is less than proven, it will be clearly labeled as such. You can see that we still need the professional genealogist.
It may appear that I have a negative attitude towards these sites, like Ancestry.com. I have actually subscribed to a couple myself. I am only averse to the way they are used by uninformed people. They offer many other services online. I have complete access to census records and other things, thanks to them.
“According to family tradition our ancestor…” Should I trust tradition? My family defends it vehemently.
Family tradition should seldom be relied upon. Unfortunately, to even show that you may doubt something could raise untold ire with some of your family members. Family traditions evolve in several different ways. One of the most common is the telling of a tall tale. We all know someone who embellishes every story they tell. Some people refer to this as “fishing stories.” The problem is that we don’t know what piece of the story is the grain of truth if any. We also don’t know how many times it has been embellished. This makes it difficult to tell what, and how much, of the tradition is correct. There usually is some grain of truth within a tradition, but not always.
One thing that might help is to look for the earliest version of the tradition. The closer to the event you can get, the more truth there usually is in the tradition, but not always. Often if you can get within the living memory of the event, there probably is some truth to it. Look at all sources around that time for corroboration or challenge to the story.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with including traditions in family histories as long as you state that they are an unsubstantiated tradition. This may give future researches clues to further unravel the mysteries of your family. Not only that, they are often darn interesting.
I have heard of someone who has traced their lineage back to Adam & Eve, or Cleopatra, or Mary Magdalene, etc. Could this be true?
I guess the first question is whether, or not, these people existed. In the case of someone like Cleopatra, there really is no debate as to whether she really lived. When you get to Adam and Eve, we need to address that whole evolution vs. creationism thing. I have no intention of opening that can of worms here.
But there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, so many people came to this country looking for a fresh start. They often left their past behind them in their native land intentionally. This makes tracing them back beyond their emigration very tough.
For those that we can find information before they came here, the same techniques, standards, and tests apply that we use for the information in this country. Keep in mind that the further we go back, the more likely we are to run into a couple of things. One is the survival of records. The more time that has elapsed, the less likely we are to find all the documents we need intact. The other is that each generation we go back allows another opportunity for error to creep into our research.
If someone can trace their family back to nobility or royalty with a fair degree of certainty, then going back to Charlemagne may be a real possibility. A couple of generations further may be possible, but beyond this, the ground gets shaky.
It is a rare case to trace a 16th-century ancestor’s line (a commoner), 200 additional years or more into the past. Anything that stretches back this far should be looked at with a very critical eye, but remember that it is not impossible. Since the noble lineage is the easiest to extend back, royal ancestry has become a sort of Holy Grail (pardon the joke) of genealogy. Many people try to make their genealogy extend back to royalty. Therefore, even a royal or noble descent should be looked at critically, even though there are many legitimate royal genealogies for people in this country today.
Back beyond the age of Charlemagne, the royal genealogies become increasingly suspect quite rapidly. Genealogies were often forged to justify the usurpation of a throne. Often kings would commission genealogical works with the expectation that the researcher finds substantially great people in the monarch’s past. Of course, the poor soul chosen for this task wouldn’t want to disappoint, if you catch my meaning.
When we get into the dark ages, we have king lists for many European kingdoms. Often more than one copy of a particular list will survive and the copies may have some substantial differences. King Alfred the Great’s genealogy is recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and should suffice as a good example of my point. There are several different extant copies of the Chronicle, and they seem to agree that he was descended from Cerdic, one of the Saxons that came to Britain and founded a kingdom in the 5th century. Cerdic was an historic person and most versions continue to trace his lineage back to Woden, the Saxon version of the god Odin. This has obviously entered the realm of legend and/or fantasy. Not only that, but the lists don’t agree in every place going back from Alfred to Cerdic. Some have fewer generations than others and some seem to have generations repeated more than once. One list even goes back farther. It was probably added when Christianity became the religion of choice for the nation. This one list continues to trace Woden/Odin’s ancestry back to Noah, and eventually Adam and Eve.
Some people can trace their lineage well into the middle ages. But as we go back further, we become less sure about the validity of our sources. At some point we slowly move into the realm of legend and beyond, without any hint of where it exactly begins. Any genealogy extending back beyond the Middle Ages should be taken with as many grains as salt as necessary.
What should I do with all these old photos and records? They seem to be getting more and more fragile with age.
That all depends. All I can say is don’t throw them out. They really should be restored, preserved and properly packed away. I strongly recommend making copies as part of the preservation process. There are a good number of reputable companies that sell supplies so you can do this yourself, but read a good book on the subject first.
You can also hire a professional to do part, or all, of the process. I would include two things in the process regardless of who does it. Everything should be digitally scanned and saved on CD-ROMs/DVDs and copies kept in different places. You could share them with anyone interested in having them. I also recommend having the digital photos restored by someone who has experience doing this. It will also help if they were in some way indexed and/or data based.
All of this obviously costs money and requires resources. If you lack either, you should elicit the help of others in your family who share your interest in preservation. In many cases, once these memories are gone, they are gone forever.
If your photos, papers, etc. concern the family branches that I am interested in, I will gladly restore and preserve them for you. When I am done, I will provide you copies on CD-ROM/DVD. Contact me using my contact information on the side-bar and we’ll talk.
[i] W. Sears Nickerson, Land Ho! 1620, A Seaman’s Story of the Mayflower, Her Construction, Her Navigation, and Her First Landfall (East Lansing Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997).