Friday, September 30, 2011

If It’s In Print, It’s Always Right, Right? The Tale Of Levi Chapin And A Search For Facts

Today, the story is all about a man named Levi Chapin – a man you probably never heard of. 

The Deacon
Levi was one of the many third great-grandchildren of an illustrious Massachusetts gentleman known as Deacon Samuel Chapin (1598 – 1675), whose monumental statue stands in front of the City Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts.   

The statue is the work of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and was commissioned by one of Deacon Samuel’s descendants: Springfield railroad tycoon Chester W. Chapin (1798 – 1883), congressman and long-time president of the Boston and Albany Railroad Corporation. Chapin, who began as the president of the Western Railroad, orchestrated the merger of three rail lines into the Boston and Albany between 1867 and 1870 and became very, very wealthy in the process.

As a point of interest, no one knows what Deacon Samuel Chapin actually looked like, so when Saint-Gaudens was designing the Chapin statue (sometimes simply known as “The Puritan”), he modeled the Deacon’s stern face on Chester’s face.  After all, Chester was paying for it and great wealth has its privileges.

I took the above close-up photo of the larger-than-life-sized model of the Chapin statue at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire a few weeks ago.  

Anyway, back to Levi’s story.

Levi Chapin (Josiah5, Seth4, Seth3, Josiah2, Deacon Samuel) was born on 5 May 1766 in Mendon, Massachusetts, baptized there on 29 June 1766 and died on 18 September 1833 somewhere in “eastern Virginia.” 

Or so the story goes. 

The birth and baptism dates come from the printed vital records of Mendon, Massachusetts and the death information comes from several printed local histories, a manuscript genealogy written circa 1895 and now in my possession, and family lore, more about which in a minute.

In between those 1766 – 1833 dates, Levi lived mostly in New Hampshire, specifically in Cheshire County, along the Connecticut River and across from what is now Bellows Falls, Vermont. A prosperous farmer – gentleman - entrepreneur, Levi owned more than 800 acres of real estate, including most of the land upon which the village of North Walpole is now situated.

So, what’s the deal with Levi Chapin? Why write about him at all?

Levi Chapin is the 6th great-grandfather of our grandkids and their first cousins (and a whole lot of other people, it turns out), so I have more than casual passing interest in his story.  Specifically, I’m interested in documenting that “died in eastern Virginia” stuff that appears as an undocumented fact in lots of places. 

Why?  Because sometimes “SUO” can appear in genealogies and can send researchers down any number of blind alleys.  SUO is shorthand for that technical term:  “Stuff of Undetermined Origin.” 

And because all too many folks are so delighted to find any ancestral death date and place in a printed source that they throw caution to the winds and accept it as fact  - for no good reason at all.

But before I get to that specific issue, I want to tell you more about Levi.

Levi Chapin bought his large farm in Cheshire County, New Hampshire from an early settler named Sherburne Hale.  Here’s how this was reported by Lyman S. Hayes in his 1929 book The Connecticut River Valley in Southern Vermont and New Hampshire: Historical Sketches, published by The Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont. It comes from the section recounting nonagenarian William Hale’s remembrance of the “Warm Winter of 1827” on pages 180 – 181 and references the farm that his father sold to Levi Chapin:

So, Levi Chapin was much more than a farmer, it seems; he was in the lumber business big time, sending lumber from his own sawmill down the river to the growing city of Springfield, Massachusetts where his illustrious ancestor had lived several centuries earlier.  This “sawmill/ lumber business” fact will become very important later on, as you will see.

So, why would a New Hampshire farmer/ lumber entrepreneur turn up dead in “eastern Virginia” in 1833?  What did he die of? In fact, why would he go to “eastern Virginia” in the first place?

Take it from someone who does lots of Virginia research – this won’t be an easy set of questions to answer:  eastern Virginia is a very big place.  Plus, unlike New England, Virginia death records in 1833 are hard to come by, if not well-nigh impossible.  Research in this time period in Virginia is not easy.

Is this going to be a lost cause?

Well, let’s look at what Orange Chapin’s 1862 genealogy of the Chapin family has to say about Levi.  The full title of the book is The Chapin Genealogy: Containing a Very Large Proportion of the Descendants of Deacon Samuel Chapin, Who Settled in Springfield, Mass. in 1642.  The “Levi Chapin” section is short:

First of all, disregard for now that Levi’s birth year shown above is incorrect by a decade; this is most likely a typographical error. And, yes, Levi lived in Westmoreland, New Hampshire (the next town south of Walpole) before he bought the Hale Farm a few miles to the north. His wife’s actual identity is much more complicated, somewhat controversial and beyond the scope of this discussion; frankly, it’s the reference to his brother Stephen, “who removed to D.C.” -  as in “Washington, D.C.”  -  a place surrounded by what could easily be called “eastern Virginia” – that caught my eye.

Turns out that Orange Chapin got it almost right:  Levi did have a much older brother Stephen, but that brother Stephen never moved to Washington, D.C. 

Levi's Nephew Stephen
However, brother Stephen Chapin’s son Stephen (Junior) actually did move to Washington D.C. when he became the president of Columbian College (now George Washington University) in 1828.  Stephen (Harvard College, Class of 1804) the minister, former theology professor at Waterville (now Colby) College and later, Columbian College President lived in Washington until he died there in 1845.

So it turns out that it was Levi Chapin’s nephew – Stephen Chapin, D.D. – who was the D.C. resident. Levi was about 21 years younger than his older brother Stephen but only 12 years older than his nephew Stephen, so it’s not surprising that the younger Stephen was thought in some circles to be his brother.

Confused yet?

Here are a few nagging questions: Did Levi go south to visit his nephew around 1833, and if so, why?  What could drag a senior citizen Yankee farmer from rural New Hampshire to the center of sin and corruption that was 1830s Jacksonian Washington? 

Did he travel alone? 

Was it part of a longer journey? (Remember, getting from the upper Connecticut River Valley to “eastern Virginia” was not something easily or comfortably accomplished in the 1830s, the state of overland public transportation being still rather primitive.)

There may be a helpful clue in Martha M. Frizzell’s 1963 two-volume, town-published History of Walpole, New Hampshire.   On page 404, after describing Levi Chapin’s lumber business and his business dealings with Henry Atkinson Green of Bellows Falls, Vermont (the father-in-law of Hetty Green, the eccentric investor known as the “Witch of Wall Street”), Frizzell notes:

Mr. Chapin was of an inventive turn of mind and having made some improvements in the primitive water wheels in use at the time, he went south in 1833 to dispose of his patents.  In Virginia he fell ill with yellow fever and died.

 So, in addition to being a farmer, sawmill operator, lumber merchant and upstanding town father of Walpole, New Hampshire, Levi Chapin was also an inventor.  A man with “…an inventive turn of mind” who no doubt spent those dark and cold New Hampshire winter nights thinking up things that could make his family’s life easier and more productive. Better water wheels? What kind of “improvements”?

“…he went south in 1833 to dispose of his patents.”

Patents! Did he actually file for and receive patents for his inventions?

Perhaps knowing more about the patents will provide a clue or two!  What and where can we learn about Levi’s patents?

Now that I have your attention, I’m going to ask you to come back when the next part of Levi’s story goes up here on the Mirror so that you can learn even more about looking for early patents, which is not as easy as folks make it out to be.  Hint: you can’t just look it up on Google Patents.   

Stay tuned to learn why not.

And then there’s all that “dying of yellow fever” business… and the fact that not everything in print is always correct.

So many questions!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It Must Be Fall: After All, The Fall Issue of “New York Archives” Is Out

Tag-Teaming Articles
Maybe it’s part of that sense of urgency that a lawn now laced with yellow-brown maple leaves brings.   

Perhaps it’s the shorter days, or the thin, brittle light that comes through the windows in late September.  

Maybe it's that aisle of Hallowe'en candy in the grocery store. Whatever it is, things seem to move just a little bit faster this time of year.

This past weekend, we headed north to Bangor, Maine for the Maine Genealogical Society’s annual Fall conference. I presented three talks, and after a leisurely drive on back roads through three New England states on Sunday, we got back before upstate darkness finally set in. 

Yesterday I was on the train to Manhattan.  Today the tasks were (a.) flu shot, (b.) grocery store and (c.) reviewing and revising my next genealogy article for the quarterly New York Archives magazine.

By 3 PM, it was all done and the next article was in the editor’s hands.  Before the deadline.  Two days early, in fact.  All nine hundred fifty four words.

Today’s mail brought my author’s copies of the current issue (Fall 2011 - Volume 11, Number 2), also a few days earlier than usual.  It must be the season, with everything moving just a little bit faster and slightly ahead of schedule.

This issue has lots of articles of interest for family historians. 

Archives staffer Keith Swaney describes a new online tool that will allow researchers to drill down even further into the Archives’ online finding aids.  (I’ll play with it tomorrow, when time permits.)  Teri Gay’s article on the “Suffragists of Easton” explores the story of some rural farm women of hardscrabble Washington County intent on getting “the vote” who, in 1891, formed themselves into a group called the “Political Equality Club.” She examines the waves they made and the records they left behind. 

Warren Broderick’s article titled “Melville’s Muse” discusses the possible connection between Herman Melville’s writing of his novella Bartleby, the Scrivener and his brothers Gansevoort and Allan Melville’s place of employment. Both brothers worked for the New York Court of Chancery -  as did Melville’s character Bartleby.  In so doing, he provides a concise and clear description of the Court – abolished in 1847 - and the kinds of records that were kept there.  Again, there’s a lot here for genealogists on a topic rarely discussed – the Court of Chancery.

But that’s not all.  Laurence Hauptman’s article on the “Iroquois Count of 1845” presents fascinating information on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “New York State Six Nations Census”, the original manuscript of which is in the New York State Archives. Today little known outside New York, the census and its supplementary report anchored Schoolcraft’s reputation as the foremost Indian authority of his time, although the report, as Hauptman explains, was not without controversy.  And yes, it’s a real census, with names and such.

I found the article by Joseph D. Collea, titled “Sparring With Mosby’s Guerillas” particularly interesting. Confederate Major John Singleton Mosby, the elusive “Gray Ghost” of Virginia whose Rangers harassed Union troops for months on end, is the fifth cousin, four times removed of Mrs. Blogger, with both of them sharing a line of descent from Edward Mosby (1660 - ca. 1742) and Sarah Woodson (1665 - ca. 1710) of Virginia.  

Then, there’s my own genealogy article (pictured above), called “Details, Details: When Little Things Mean A Lot”.  The article examines the importance of being alert to those tiny clues in records that can provide the researcher with new insight and perhaps a new research direction.  It grew out of an article called "Change of Heart" that appeared in the last issue, written by Antonia Mattheou, the archivist of the Town of Huntington, Long Island.  She found two early 19th century letters, one of them dated 1819 and each signed only with the writer’s first names: “Mary” and “Abraham”.  In the last issue, she described where they were found (tucked in with some local property deeds) and then transcribed “Mary’s” letter to “Abraham” – a missive that would best be described as a “Dear John” brush-off.  

In this issue, Jody Hohmann, the editor of New York Archives magazine discusses “Abraham’s” unsent draft response.  Her section includes a transcript of ”Abraham’s” letter, and then, in her last paragraph, throws the issue of confirming the writers’ identity over to me.

I, in turn, discuss the little clues in the letter and point out how a genealogist would put together a research “game plan” from those clues and then set out to discover the records that could lead to the true identity of “Mary and Abraham.”  In other words, a brief explanation of methodology and the Genealogical Proof Standard, written for the non-genealogist.

Those were only the highlights of interest to family historians; for the “general reader” there’s a whole lot more.

New York Archives magazine appears in hard-copy only and is sent four times a year to all members of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, an organization dedicated to “sustaining the excellence of the State Archives and … ensuring that New York’s most valuable historical records are available for future generations”.

If you share those ideas and goals, you should seriously consider joining the NYSAPT, like I did years ago.  You can learn more about membership here.  Then you’ll have your very own copy of the magazine to peruse, which is even better than me describing it to you every now and again.   

Plus, you’ll likely pay for your membership with all the discounts members get on things.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Genea-Investors: Is Wall Street Telling Us Anything About "Big Picture" Genealogy?

Wall Street - No Bull
Here’s an interesting point to ponder.  

Today, the stock market – both the New York Stock Exchange (known as “the Big Board” ) and the NASDAQ - took another beating, extending their recent “down days” to four in a row.

Things are tough out there.

One of the companies that suffered was the one run by our good friends in Provo, UT:  Point of disclosure – I own some shares, and this blog post is neither an encouragement for you to buy nor an admonishment for you to sell.  In fact, it’s not about investing at all, despite what it sounds like.

Bear with me for a while.

Ancestry (whose ticker symbol is ACOM) got zonked today, losing $3.18 a share, thus plummeting nearly 12% to $23.49 a share. As a point of reference, ACOM was worth as much as $45.00 a share earlier this year.  So, if you bought shares at the high, your investment was down by nearly half.

As I said, things are tough out there.

Now, today was a down day on the market overall – not just for Ancestry, what with all the bad financial news coming out of Europe. The Dow was down nearly 400 points, a little over 3.5%.  The “fear index” was up. But still, Ancestry was down more than most. Nearly 12% is a lot.

Is genealogy over? Are people done subscribing?

Not likely, but it’s very interesting indeed to poke around the web – specifically in the financial/investing message boards – to see what investors are saying about genealogy in general and in particular.

Most Wall Street investors are not genealogists.  In fact, most investors think we’re (i.e., the genealogy folk) a little bit weird.  Scratch that – they think we’re a whole lot weird.  That’s because they don’t do genealogy, mostly because they have no personal interest in history or in dead people.

Bluntly, they’re in the market to make money. And most of ‘em are kids (which, to some of us, is anyone under 50…)

So, you’ll find the message boards for Ancestry investors and investor-wannabes riddled with messages about why a company like Ancestry can never succeed long-term. For example, one poster recently observed that genealogy was really easy and that he finished his in about four months.  He observed that he might check back every 10 years or so to update things, but since he was “done”, there was no reason to subscribe any more.

Another poster admitted to being kinda, sorta addicted to genealogy AND a senior citizen, but since he had done all the census stuff on Ancestry, there was nothing left to do. So he did not renew his subscription.

A less than enthusiastic Ancestry watcher rhetorically inquired of other posters, “Are You Nuts?” and then proceeded to question why anyone would spend time or money to trace their family history on or any other subscription website.  Or trace their family history at all.

Several other posters commented that they thought his gene pool might be very shallow, with no deep end at all.
As I said, things are tough out there.

What does all this mean?  In the investor’s “big picture”, not much; in the hobbyist/ genealogical professionals’ world, however, it means we’re not doing enough outreach to those people that are usually called “the Public At Large”.

People who aren’t “one of us” still think we’re all those proverbial “blue-haired old ladies in tennis shoes” trying to find stuff so that we can all join hereditary societies, feast on tea and crumpets or trace our lines to the rich and famous. 

Sure, there’s some of that, but that’s not what motivates most of us. In fact, a good part of the rest of humanity has no clue about the passion that drives us to do what we do.

Bottom-lining it, we need to tell our story better.  We need to show our non-practicing, non-believing friends that there’s merit in what we do. 

That good genealogy means better health history.  That thorough genealogy means that much more is known about “big” (national) history and about “small” (local) history.  That competent genealogists can be professionals, and professionals can be competent genealogists.  That the forgotten facts we uncover, dust off and reassemble are facts about the people who built our nation, our infrastructure and our society, not about ourselves.

That real genealogy is not about “ME”, but rather about “US” – all of us.

If ACOM stock slides a little bit – no big deal in the long run.  The market – like the weather – is highly variable. 

However, if we turn our backs on public outreach and education – really big negative deal, and we’ll all suffer in the long run. Library and archives funding will become more difficult to find and the sound of doors closing on public records will get louder.

Shouldn't we all be working to tell our story better - and not just to our social-networking selves?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Where Was “The Garden of Eden”?: And Are All “Sources” Equal? And Are They Sources At All?

Adam FirstMan and Eve FirstWoman
If you spend much time looking at genealogy stuff online, especially in those places where you can find lots and lots of multi-generational family trees submitted by users and subscribers (many of them anonymous), you’ll notice that lots of folks identify other people’s totally unsourced family trees and gedcoms as “sources.” 

In other words, they’re saying that, “I couldn’t be bothered actually checking this stuff out myself.  I’m really busy and this is just a hobby. I’d just as soon take (insert somebody elses’s name here)’s word for it, even if there are no  real source citations to back it up.  And, hey, even if it’s not right, it still adds more stuff to my charts!  It’s good enough for me! I need more names and dates! Of course, if it’s not right, don’t blame me.  I got it from somebody else.

Not surprisingly, as more and more people discover genealogy through the internet, the number of unsourced family trees online seems to exponentially expand.  (Hey! Look at me, look at me!  I’m probably descended from lots of famous people, kings and generals and such! And Indians! And pirates!)

My particular favorites are the family trees for Adam FirstMan and his wife Eve FirstWoman.  I’m especially taken with the ones that identify Adam FirstMan as living in “Eden, Lamoille County, Vermont” or “Eden, Rockingham County, North Carolina” and showing Adam as having been born in 4004 B.C. (which the good programming folks at translate as "British Columbia").  

And most of ‘em - mirabile dictu - are “sourced.”

Maybe Vermont-to-North Carolina “Adam FirstMan” was a snowbird.

If you’re not a member of a local genealogical society, or are not working with a mentor, or do not go to conferences regularly or are not part of a study group – in other words, if you’re working all by yourself and unless somebody tells you otherwise, you may be inclined to “cite” the place where you found what looked for all the world like a “fact” as a “source”, leading to an explosion of “sources” that are totally unconnected to any kind of verifiable reality.  

This is not to say that you need to do all - or any - of the things mentioned in the beginning of the paragraph above if you want to do good genealogy.  It simply means that it's a whole lot harder to do it by yourself.

Just because calls it a “source” doesn’t make it so. And finding it in a compiled genealogy book published in 1878 doesn't make it a "source."  Same thing for mug books and county histories. 

And since, in the minds of the under-experienced researchers, all “sources” – especially those in print - are equal, no matter what their origin, lots of weird stuff appears online  - -  sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a summer rain.

Clues become Sources. This is not a good thing.

It’s particularly interesting to Missus Blogger and me, since lots of what’s online about HER family cites Missus Blogger’s grandfather as the “source” – usually citing his unsourced local history newspaper articles – all written under a “nom de plume” way back in the 1930s and 1940s. There are lots of ‘em, and the information gets passed around a lot. Over and over.

We have many of his original manuscripts and notebooks so we know where he got some of his facts and we know what was sourced and what was legend and myth, (d/b/a “oral history”), passed down through the generations.

Problem is, much of what appeared in print was based upon hearsay, conflated evidence and wishful thinking.  It’s not that the real evidence wasn’t there; it’s just that way back then, not everybody bothered to check it out, not even Missus Blogger’s author-historian-grandpa.

Stuff like the census was only available in far-away Washington; land and probate records were in courthouses hundreds of miles away.  Nobody had a lot of money for travel.  Hearsay was good enough and “Uncle Joe sure looked like an Indian. Who’s to say there isn’t Indian blood in the family?

Besides, why stand in the way of a good story? 

Certainly the little French kid who was baptized in Strasbourg in 1757 that she’s descended from was a member of the French nobility.  Everybody said so, so it must be true. Of course he threw his gold-braided hat in the Seine.  Of course he could read and write seven languages, maybe eight. (that’s what the story says…)  

Of course he learned to be a guilder in London before the Revolution, when he was about 16. There is, of course, no doubt that he sailed to far-off America because he really wanted to be a minister-farmer in the far backwoods of Virginia, a three day’s ride from any town with more than 500 people.

That’s what London guilders and French nobility did in those days, right?  Every French nobleman harbors a secret desire to live in 500-Miles-West-of-Nowhere, Virginia, and be the only guilder on the frontier. "I'm just farming here and preaching until the market for gold-leafed stuff improves...", he said...

It sure is a good story, so, as people say, it must be true. “I heard it from “Grandpa” who heard it from his “Uncle Joe” who got it from his “old Aunt Sallie” who learned it from . . . “  - well, anyway, you get the idea.

The older the source, the more believable it seems.  

 In fact, folks often use 19th century printed information as indisputable fact, without bothering to check how it came to be.  Or, if there were typographical errors.  Or mistakes in dates.  Or the usual Victorian-era “tidying up” of embarrassing facts.

That’s why I wrote the post a couple of weeks ago about the need to check out sources and verify them, no matter how much you might want to trust the compiler/narrator/writer.

Memory is faulty.  Handwriting can be hard to decipher. Correcting typeset galley proofs is costly.  Changing things carved in stone (headstones, monuments) is prohibitively expensive.  In the minds of editors, not all newspaper stories with errors merit correction. The expression “good enough for government work” is based on more than a kernel of truth.

Still, if you’re going to put stuff online and use the word “source”, or if you’re going to “cite” something, please take the time to see if it’s credible. And reliable.

Think it through.  Don’t just copy it because somebody else posted it.

Because bad genealogy just doesn’t go away.  In fact, it get copied and passed around.  Over and over again. Pretty soon, lots of people believe it. 

In a future post, I’ll probably address some stuff that’s out there on a pretty “official” looking archival site administered by a well-known university.  There’s a finding aid to manuscripts referencing a prominent historical figure that includes genealogical information.  The information is very wrong and, not surprisingly, the correct info is very easy to find.

Still, the “bad” info is out there, and has been copied by any number of other “researchers” as Gospel-true, and has even made its way to Wikipedia (surprise!).   

But that’s for another day! I don't have time right now...

Today, I wanna see if Adam FirstMan is on Find-A-Grave!

Monday, September 19, 2011

So, What About “English-To-Pirate” Machine Translation?

Today is September 19th and therefore, as everybody on this little green Earth knows, it’s “International Talk Like A Pirate Day” once again.

Since I spent part of last Saturday in Williamstown, MA, lecturing about online German genealogy research and explaining the good, the bad and the ugly of online German-to-English/ English-to-German online machine translators, I thought it would be interesting to see if there were any English-to-Piratish translators out there.

Aaargh and shiver me timbers! The number of translators is (a)vast! See for yourself by Googling “pirate translator.”  You’ll be amazed at what you find.

So, one by one, I tried them -  many of ‘em  - out.  (Not all of 'em, mind you; just "many of 'em.")

How did it work, you ask?

Simple and fine.  I took the first paragraph of last year’s “Pirate Day” post and plugged it into the translator, taking it for a test drive.

The results were “interesting.”  I decided that I was kinda partial to the one available at  It was, well, a bit more colourful than many of the others, and, by the way, it will also translate websites.  

Of course, your mileage may vary, so test-drive several of the ones you find.

Here’s what I fed to the above-mentioned translator:

Thus, it seems like an appropriate occasion to recount the story of Granddaughter and Grandson’s 5th great-grandfather and his encounter with guys who talked liked pirates all the time – because they were.  The kind of “piratish” they spoke was a dialect of Chinese, as spoken on the islands in the China Sea that the Portuguese called the Ladrones. Here’s the story:

And here’s the translation result (without any corrective editing by me) that popped out:

Thus, "Parrot Strangling Slops Barrel!" it seems like an appropriate occasion t' recount th' story o' Granddaughter an' Grandson’s 5th great-grandfather an' his encounter wi' guys who talked liked pirates all th' time – cause they were. Th' "Up The Jolly Roger With Ye!" blunderbustingly kind o' “piratish” they spoke be a dialect o' Chinese, as spoken on th' islands in th' China Sea that th' Portuguese called th' Ladrones. Here’s "Batten Down The Hatches!" th' story:

Now, if you want to read more of the true story of Cape Cod China trader William Sturgis and his adventures with real pirates off the coast of China in 1809, here’s the link to last year’s story:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who Owns “Happy Birthday” And Why Good Researchers Should Care

Sometimes, I get distracted. 

Even the best plans for the day can get undone when something really interesting comes across the desk. This morning it was an article that I never planned on reading in the first place;  I found it quite by accident – while researching the recently filed “orphaned works” copyright dispute mounted against HathiTrust.  They’re the folks working with a consortium of universities, Google books and others to assemble the world’s largest collection of freely-available digitized scholarly books and articles in the world.

As I often talk about using the HathiTrust Digital Library project  in one of my talks on unusual and frequently overlooked resources for genealogists, I figured I’d better know what’s what since the lawsuit asks for an injunction that would be tantamount to a “stop work” order if successful. 

And since the HathiTrust Library has 9.6 million items digitized, that’s a lotta “stop work.”

Anyway, that’s not today’s story and it’s only slightly related to today’s topic.

Today it’s about kids’ birthday parties. 

And music – specifically a song.  And royalties.  And crime.

And why you (yes, YOU) are very likely a vicious scofflaw, wantonly, criminally stealing someone else’s intellectual property without even the slightest pinprick of conscience, and all in full view of your own little offspring and relatives.

Or maybe not.

You see, it’s pretty widely known all over the tubes of the Internet that the song “Happy Birthday To You” is still under copyright and that the copyright is currently owned by (wait for it) Time-Warner.  In fact, Justice Stephen Breyer even referred to that fact in his 2003 dissent in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case.  That was the case that finally granted 20-year extensions to some copyrights.  

So, if a Supreme Court justice AND the Internet says so, it must be true, right?

After all, if you can find something online and you can also find a “reliable source” – like a Supreme Court guy – to say that the “something” that you found is true, why go any further? Certainly a very large percentage of genealogists would agree that it’s “good enough.”

So, if you sing “Happy Birthday” to your kid, or your grammy or one of your co-workers, you need to send Time-Warner or somebody a check – or else you’re in violation of copyright law and you’d be a common thief. Tsk, tsk…  Remember, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Or maybe not. 

Can something written more than a hundred years ago still be under copyright?  Is that even research-able? And if so, surely someone's done that, right?

All of which leads me to this morning’s Article of Distraction: “Copyright and The World’s Most Popular Song” by Robert Brauneis.  Brauneis is a professor at the George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C. He is a Harvard J.D. and a former law clerk for (then) First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen G. Breyer, who is now “Justice” Breyer. At the GWU School of Law, Brauneis is also the co-director of the Intellectual Property Law Program, so when it comes to copyright, he knows whereof he speaks.

Best of all, he writes in readable English and he thinks like a very skilled and very experienced genealogist.  In the article abstract, he specifically mentions “… the dangers of relying on anecdotes without thorough research and analysis.”  Perhaps that may sound familiar? Further, the article abstract ends with this sentence: “Over two hundred unpublished documents found in six archives across the United States have been made available on a website that will serve as an online appendix to this article.

Archives, “real-deal” unpublished documents, thorough research . . . could it get any better?

Actually, yes.

It’s not very often that you find an article about the law written by a top-notch law professor that references the census, Rootsweb, gravestone research, obituaries, church records, the Filson Historical Society, NARA, oral history and a whole lot more. As Brauneis sketches out the family history of the sisters of Patty Hill, you might almost think you were reading an article in a peer-reviewed, footnote-rich genealogy journal.

As it becomes clear, even songs can have a “genealogy”, just like their copyright owners. And quality research - whether it's a family or a copyright - is based on finding actual documentation, not on accepting what "everyone" already knows to be "true."

Warning: this is not a quick read; the article is 69 pages long.  Still, it raises lots of interesting points, especially about what can happen when “everybody” believes something is true, but nobody actually checks. Here’s the link to the pdf file of the Brauneis article.  The price is right: it’s free.

(which sure beats the song “Happy Birthday To You”...)

As Brauneis points out toward the end of the article,  “Happy Birthday To You” currently generates about $5,000.00 A DAY in royalties for its copyright owners.

Have you paid your fair share?

If not, the copyright owners would politely suggest that you 'fess up and pay up or shut up and stop stealin' their song!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Booked Up? So, What’s On A Bookseller’s OWN Bookshelves?

I am told by close family members that I have an excessively, obscenely large collection of arcane reference books.  

Frankly, I don’t care; that’s one of the secret pleasures of being a bookseller specializing in out-of-print material. You get first dibs on the great stuff you discover in out-of-the-way places.

On my way back from Long Island last week, I stopped at a friend’s bookshop in the mid-Hudson Valley – just in case there was something I needed.  These days, when I buy for my own reference library, I need to pace myself, because space is not infinitely expandable and it’s hard to make room on the shelves for “just one or two more.”

Still, I couldn’t pass up a very nice copy of Joseph C. G. Kennedy’s Preliminary Report On The Eighth Census – 1860, published by the Government Printing Office in Washington in 1862. In addition to the usual and expected statistical tables, there’s the text – most of which Kennedy wrote himself. Sometimes, it’s a single line in these kinds of reports that can send you off on a quest for more information elsewhere.  For example, on page 100, under the heading “New Domestic Animals”, Kennedy wrote, “Camels and Cashmere goats have been successfully introduced, and strong hopes are entertained of their perfect acclimation and permanent utility.”


That sent me off in search of yet more information on camels in the United States circa 1850 – 1860.  Who knew about the schemes to use camels as commercial freight carriers in Utah or as draft animals on Alabama plantations?  Who remembers the Secretary of War (Jefferson Davis, in fact) who promoted the US Army Camel Corps in Texas during this time period?  Who knew that the ship carrying camels from Tunisia as a gift for the President of the United States also carried a piece of marble from the ruins of ancient Carthage that was to be used in the construction of the Washington Monument?

That’s why I keep adding things to the shelves.  There’s just too much good stuff that I want to have at my fingertips as a ready reference.

For example, there’s my copy of the 1944 Annual Report of the American Historical Association in which appears the “Guide to the American Historical Review, 1895 – 1945.”  This handy “guide” provides me with browse-able, indexed information about a wide range of nifty articles that appeared in the “Review” during its first 55 years. Things like Dallas Irvine’s July 1939 article titled “The Fate of Confederate Archives” which appeared in Volume 44.  Or Albert Deutsch’s article in the April 1941 issue entitled “The Sick Poor in Colonial Times.” Both of these topics are items of interest for projects I’m currently working on and the articles are now on the “to read” list.

If I hadn't thumbed through the book, I might never have found references to those articles, neither of which would have been on my radar back in 1986 when I first bought it. My research interests constantly evolve.

Then there’s my very worn and water-stained copy of the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Common Schools of the State of New York… , published in Albany in 1845 by “Carroll and Cook, Printers To The Assembly.” Doesn’t sound like much, but the first-hand reports from the county school superintendents provide an insight into New York education and social customs in the 1840s that are hard to find anywhere else.  For example, A.S. Stevens, the superintendent in Wyoming County, wrote that he was having a problem convincing the parents in his district that corporal punishment in school was not a “good thing.” 

He wrote, “The moment a word is hinted against corporal punishment as a necessary means  of school discipline, the better part of the community are in arms and upon you at once, as a disorganizer, attacking the good order, the long established, wholesome and necessary rules of society; and a setter-up of strange doctrines.  And they, in all respects very good citizens, cling to this relic of the barbarian age, with all the tenacity that others have done to a firm belief in witchcraft, necromancy, or in the great Diana of the Ephesians.”

Other county superintendents described their school houses.  Warren County’s Lemon Thomson noted that, of the 105 schools in his district only 35 had blackboards and only 21 had privies, observing that proper privies were needed “…both for the convenience of scholars and to induce them to cultivate and retain the habits of delicacy, neatness and decorum.”

Local school superintendents - despite making handsome six-figure salaries in these parts these days - tend not to write with this degree of clarity or insight, never mind the "Diana of the Ephesians" reference.

Then there are, of course, the many shelves of bibliographic references – everything from bibliographies of Bermuda and Nantucket history to references for mystery fiction, local history, genealogy, medical works, religion and the common classics on bibliographic description. For example, the 1983 International Bibliography of Historical Demography may seem obscure, but if you’ve ever heard my “Sleuthing in the Stacks” talk, you would have learned about the importance of keeping up with what’s going on in that particular scholarly world.  Historical demographers use the same kinds of records as genealogists.  They just study whole groups of people, rather than families and individuals. Hence, a genealogist working on a problem in England in the early 1700s may find the reference to Grace Wyatt’s 1981 article titled “Migration in South-West Lancashire: a Study of Three Parishes (1661 – 1760)” helpful, especially since the journal Local Population Studies tends not to make most genealogists’ casual reading lists.

Nearby on the shelf is John D. Gay’s superb 1971 study called The Geography of Religion in England. This one earns its keep because of its fascinating maps that present information on the distribution of various religious groups throughout England at various time periods.  Need to know where the “General Baptists” and “Particular Baptists” were in the 17th century?  Consult Map 25.   

Wondering about the beliefs, development and distribution of the “British Israel Movement”?  Consult the text on page 183.  Since you asked…The British Israelites believe that they – as Anglo-Saxons – are the chosen race of God and that they are the lineal descendants of the House of Israel.  Apparently it was a group particularly favored by the aristocracy in the 1920s and 1930s.

These titles, of course, just scratch the surface and take up less than one half of one three-foot  shelf of the 48 shelves that are designated “reference.”  Then there are the piles of books on the floor.  And in boxes. And under the bed.  And in the closet.

Well, anyway, you get the idea.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“If Your Mother Says She Loves You…”: On the Importance of Questioning Sources

Over the Labor Day weekend, I took some time to bring a few of my genealogical research databases up to date.  I settled on several Virginia/West Virginia families and zeroed in on the Ryans, late of Boone County, West – (By God) - Virginia.  

For genealogists working in this part of the country, sorting out people who share the same last name can be a real challenge on a number of levels.  First off, there’s the spelling.  “Ryan” competes with “Ryon” and “Ryen” on lots of public records.  Then, because the pronunciation of “Ryan” can be – like the weather – highly variable, the name sometimes appears as “Rine” or even the much more fancy “Ryne” or “Rhine.”  After all, these are not the bog Irish, Famine –era immigrants of the Northeast (my folks), but rather the folks who came to Virginia long before there was a United States. Spelling is a sometime thing.

Then, there’s the regional predilection for identifying people – both males and females – simply by the first two letters of their first and middle names, followed by their last name. In one document, the man appears as “Charles Ryan”.  A few years later, he’s listed as “C. N. Rine” in another document. 

Same guy?  Probably, but further verification wouldn’t hurt.

Also, there are the folks who have the very same name as several of their close kin, all of whom live reasonably close to one another, just to make life interesting for genealogists a century later.

So, in taking up the challenge of sorting out and updating the Ryans, I finally came to Charles Lewis Ryan (1856 - 1934).  This “Charles Ryan” was a first cousin of the grandkids’ 3rd great-grandmother Emma Virginia Ryan (1861 – 1922).  He is certainly not to be confused with that OTHER nearly contemporary “Charles Ryan”; that would be Emma’s own brother Charles Ryan (1858 – 1932). Fortunately, these two guys lived in different counties.  Nor should he be conflated with her first cousin Joe Ryan’s son Charles Ryan. Or with her OTHER first cousin Charles Ryan. Or even with the “Charles In Question’s” own son Charles Ryan.

Each of these five Charles Ryans lived within the boundaries of an imaginary corridor snaking through the mountains, switchbacks and hollers of Virginia and West Virginia, a narrow stretch of land about 175 miles long and 40 miles wide, straddling a number of small, largely rural Virginia and West Virginia counties.

Of course, also living in this imaginary tract of Almost Heaven were any number of probably-unrelated Charles Ryans.  See? When it comes to sorting out Ryans, nothing is simple.

Fortunately, the state of West Virginia has gifted those of us who do West Virginia research with a wonderful website: The West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s Vital Records Search site

Unlike other state governments who’ve hidden away their vital records inside the forbidding Dark Castle of Secrecy, allowing entrance only to those with a Right To Know and a sufficient amount of CASH (I’m talking about you, New York State…), West Virginia provides researchers with a functioning vital records search engine and with digitized images of the actual records.  All For Free.

So, off I went to download Ryan births and Ryan marriages and Ryan deaths.  And thereby hangs a tale.

Newbie genealogists (especially if they’ve heard the talks about the primacy of “primary” sources) believe in the sacrosanctity of government records.  Frankly, they’re not alone; lots of government officials feel the same way.  Give ‘em a government-issued certificate printed on fancy paper with a raised seal and all the truth in the world cannot prevail against it.

And so we come to Charles Ryan’s death certificate, issued in Summers County, West Virginia in 1934.

It’s straightforward enough and looks like all the other certificates issued there in 1934.

For your amusement, here it is, courtesy of the website cited above:

(Hint: if you click on the image, it gets bigger)

If you were just starting out in this genealogy thing, you might seize upon all the information found on the certificate as Gospel Truth.  You would, of course, be wrong.  At best, some of it is apocryphal.

What can you be sure of?  Well, the date and place of death are probably correct.  Chances are, Dr. Percy P. Pharr, the attending physician, may have been competent enough to document the primary and contributing causes of death correctly. The funeral home’s name and address are likely correct, as is the deceased name.  After that, it’s largely hearsay information, some of it correct and some of it…not.

For example, unless Charles Ryan fell into a particularly garrulous autobiographical mood shortly before his death, it’s likely that the attending physician who filled out his death certificate asked his surviving spouse for the rest of his personal information. The “Mrs. C. L. Ryan” identified as the informant was either his second or third wife and hardly an expert on her husband’s early life. 

While she identified his place of birth (Montgomery County, Virginia) and his father (W. G. Ryan) correctly, either her memory or her knowledge failed when she mistakenly identified Charles Ryan’s first wife’s mother (Alice Lilly) as his mother.  His actual mother, Mary Jane Barnett, died shortly after little Charles was born, probably from the complications of childbirth.

How do I know all this?

Simple.  I’ve been tracking various branches of this particular family across these two states for more than 35 years, collecting documents and verifying information. For better or worse, I’m kind of an expert on these Ryans.

The point?

Beginning genealogists often assume that all the information on an official document is correct.  They need to adopt a whole new attitude: CIAO.  Or “Check It ALL Out.”   

Always ask what is “likely true”, what is “probably true” and what is “maybe true.”  Take nothing on faith, even if the document looks terribly official and reliable. Human error and/or fallibility can crop up in places you least expect it.

My high school journalism teacher – an aging nun who was a member of the order known as the Sisters of Mercy – showed no mercy to journalism students who failed to question their sources.  Guided by her, and as the editor of my high school newspaper, I quickly learned to doubt pretty much everything.  My “reporters” got used to me asking, “How do you know this is true?” before their writing could appear in print. 

That skepticism – taught to me by a woman who took an amazing amount of other things in her personal life on faith - has served me well as a family historian.

One of the first things beginning journalists learn is to verify the information that they get from “sources.”  Simply citing a source isn’t enough:  you need to check it out for veracity.

Or, as they used to teach brand-new reporters in the City Rooms all of the country:  “if your mother says she loves you, check it out!

CIAO, baby!